“Things That Go Swing in the Night: The Rhythmic Gambits of Joanna Newsom & Jason Spaceman” by Peter Relic (2007)

Things That Go Swing in the Night: The Rhythmic Gambits of Joanna Newsom & Jason Spaceman

by Peter Relic

Posted Mon Nov 26, 2007 in Arthur’s Yahoo blog

“It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” Ella Fitzgerald once sang, but in the half-century since then popular music has accorded meaning to a wide variety of rhythmic developments, swinging and otherwise. Two recent concerts however–one by Joanna Newsom at the Frank Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, and one by Spiritualized at L.A.’s ornate Vista movie theater–brought Irving Mills’ original lyric to mind. One swung, one didn’t. And what a difference it made.

I first saw Joanna Newsom perform in 2004 at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom (still my favorite venue in the U.S.). Accompanied only by her own harp, Newsom rendered the songs off her then-new The Milk-Eyed Mender LP faithfully, but with one profound difference: they swung like all heck. The technical excellence of Newsom’s harp-plucking became both more limber and more muscular in person, turning tunes like “The Book Of Right-On” into virtual funk workouts. She improved upon the recorded versions of her songs by realizing their additional rhythmic potential, thus evoking late great harpist Dorothy Ashby, whose albums Afro Harping and The Rubaiyat Of Dorothy Ashby are mystical jazz-funk classics.

So it was with great interest that I went to the Disney Hall performance this November 9th. Newsom performed songs from her complex-yet-accesible Van Dyke Parks-arranged album Ys backed by not only the L.A. Philharmonic but by three members of her Ys Street Band: a violinist, a banjo player, and a barefoot bowlcut drummer. Using both drumsticks and his hands, the drummer beat ultra-luddite 4/4 beats that had a twofold effect: first, he made V.U.’s Moe Tucker sound like Rashied Ali by comparison; second, he wrung all the rhythmic complexities out of Newsom’s music. When a member of the Philharmonic took to the vibraphone, it seemed like the whole thing might start to swing, but the vibes were inaudible. After the intermission, when Newsom performed sans-Philharmonic but with her quartet, the music retained its ethereal essence yet often seemed plodding. While it’s likely that my listening experience was affected by variable factors (an unbalanced soundmix, my upper tier seat), Newsom’s unaccompanied encore underscored the fact that strictly on-the-beat drumming inhibits the rhythmic possibilities of her songs.

Admittedly this is merely a matter of taste–the thudding drumming and approximately Appalachian style of her quartet set-up drew approving whoops from the crowd. But I’d love to hear her sometime backed by a nice little jazz combo.

A few days later I had the good fortune of seeing Spiritualized play on what could’ve been called their Acoustic Mainline Gospel-With-Strings tour. Leader Jason Spaceman, who has taken the sunglasses-at-night motif into the new millenium, rearranged his songs for a group that consisted of guitar, electric piano, two violins, viola, cello, and three female backing singers. No drummer, and no need for one–the absence of a drums created a huge space of rhythmic possibility, and the swell and ebb of the strings and voices realized the implicitly syncopated nature of that potential. Songs like “Going Down Slow,” “The Straight And The Narrow” and “Anything More” — slightly jazzy in recorded form–seemed to swing more than ever in their drum-free renderings.

I can’t help but think that the extraordinary uplift that I felt at the Spiritualized show–I’d go to church every week if it felt that good–had a direct correlation to the fact that the music swung. Which is not to say that the Joanna Newsom show didn’t mean a thing. It’s just that Spiritualized meant that much more.

Peter Relic is a contributing editor to Arthur Magazine

PEEKING INTO HEAVEN: A conversation with Jason Spaceman (Arthur, 2008)

Peeking Into Heaven

How a brush with death, a haunted guitar and filmmaker Harmony Korine helped Spiritualized’s Jason Spaceman wrestle a new album of narcotic gospel music into being.

Text: Jay Babcock
Photography: Stacy Kranitz

Art direction: Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington

Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)

There are some humans who seem specially equipped to not just interact with consciousness-altering drugs, but to thrive from their persistent use. For two decades, English musician Jason Pierce, aka J. Spaceman, seemed to be one of these special specimens. His first band, the succinctly named Spacemen 3, was a triumph of drugs, sound and stubborness—”Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to,” “Fucked up inside,” and “For all the fucked up children of the world,” were bandied-about slogans/mottos; Playing With Fire and The Perfect Prescription were album titles; and a serious, incandescent reconciliation of drone, blues, rock n roll, junkie metaphor and primitive psychedelic sound effects was what they achieved. Formed in 1982 with Pete Kember aka Sonic Boom, with whom, astonishingly, Jason shared a birthdate and birthplace hospital, Spacemen 3 burned both ends brightly (if distantly—they never made it to America, and relatively few people saw them in England) before disintegrating in 1991 after a series of truly despicable actions by Kember.

As Spacemen 3 fell to earth, Pierce launched Spiritualized, releasing a series of studio albums in the ’90s combining an ever-broadening musical palate with an audiophile’s attention to detail and a continuing lyrical preoccupation with the idea of Need—need for companionship, for drugs, for hope, for relief from suffering. 1997’s woozy Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, a breakup/lament album of epic musical scope incorporating gospel, noise and sublime bliss-outs, caught the public’s attention unlike any other album Pierce has made before or since, but it should be understood that ALL OF THEM ARE GREAT. Pierce has stuck to his themes, to his minimalist-maximalist vision, and each album—from the coldstar beauty of 1995’s Pure Phase to the orchestral grandeur of 2001’s Let It Come Down to the raw, stoic ache of 2003’s Amazing Grace—offers a variation on that single approach, or to use his metaphor, a single mainline. Live, Spiritualized tend toward the overwhelming; I’ve seen people black out, weep openly, mount each other in joy at shows through the years—if that isn’t evidence of being in the presence of transcendence, I don’t know what is.

When word leaked out in July 2005 that Pierce was in hospital nearing death, most of us assumed that the OD catastrophe (to quote an early Spacemen 3 song) had finally happened. The truth was in some ways scarier—Pierce was down to 110 pounds and taking half-second breaths, with his wife undergoing grief counseling in preparation for the seeming imminent departure—because he had contracted double pneumonia, and a doctor had somehow failed to detect it in an earlier visit.

Almost three years later, on the eve of the release of the new Spiritualized album (punningly titled Songs in A & E—“A & E” is British shorthand for the “Accidents & Emergency” department of a hospital), Arthur meets up with Jason in Williamsburg. Wearing white pants, a white Roky Erickson t-shirt and silver sneakers, Pierce is in good spirits, and with the sunglasses and hair, he seems ageless: it could be 1988, 1998 or 2008. It’s all the same, and yet things have changed. It’s not yet dusk, so Jason insists on Coca-Cola rather than something harder. As we head through the bar to the backyard pebble garden, we pass a large medical poster displaying two human lungs. I gasp. Jason laughs. He’s lived to play with fire another day.

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