Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lb4Lb #2: The Rhythm of the Saints

Some stories are magical, meant to be sung
Song from the mouth of the river
When the world was young
And all of these spirit voices rule the night
-Spirit Voices
It is hard for me to be moved by poetry. I'm just a little too cynical, and a little too leery of pretty words and images. I find beauty in the broken and the deformed things (see the first Lb4Lb review for proof of that), and tend not to be easily impressed by the flowery or the openly sentimental.

So when I tell you that an album is unapologetically beautiful, deeply moving, and still complex and fascinating after nearly twenty years on my "play often" list, you have to know it is full of powerful stuff.

Soon our fortunes will be made, my darling
And we will leave this loathsome little town
I discovered Paul Simon's world famous Graceland album near the end of my high school days, and literally wore my first cassette copy out in my car stereo before I graduated.

There was some controversy at the time about the U.S. embargo against apartheid, but it was Graceland that got me heavily into African music about then. I was so in love with the music on that album, I went and sought out every artist related to it I could find: Los LobosLadysmith Black MambazoC.J. ChenierBakithi Kumalo (who played that wicked 2-measure bass solo on You Can Call Me Al), and eventually the classic compilation, The Indestructible Beat of Soweto - Volume One.

When I found out about the The Rhythm Of The Saints, I couldn't wait to hear it. I scoured the used record shops for a copy, because there was no way I could afford it new, and finally, about a year after it came out, I did hear it... and went back to Graceland.

She says ''Maybe these emotions are
As near to love as love will ever be''
So I agree...
She Moves On
Okay, so it wasn't an immediate "hit" with me. I liked the rat-a-tat-tat of The Obvious Child and the frenetic guitar work of Proof enough to play it on occasion, and even got to know some of the words well enough to sing along. My best friend loved the soaring Portugese vocals NanĂ¡ Vasconcelos provided on Spirit Voices enough to go root out his album, Rain Dance, but at the time, I only thought it was a pretty song.

I was immune to the poetry.

Who says: Hard times?
I'm used to them
The speeding planet burns
I'm used to that
My life's so common it disappears
And sometimes even music
Cannot substitute for tears
The Cool, Cool River
It was only after a period of about ten years that I began to realize how often I was turning to this album when I had hard times. That line about my life being so common, and music substituting for tears... that captured me. Pretty words mean nothing, but THAT - that struck me to the core of my being.

We had a lot of fun
We had a lot of money
We had a little son and we thought we'd call him Sonny
Sonny gets married and moves away
Sonny has a baby and bills to pay
Sonny gets sunnier
Day by day by day by day
The Obvious Child
The ton-of-bricks moment, the moment I realized how deeply this album had hooked me, was when I found myself paging through my yearbook, telling my daughter about the people under the funny haircuts. My god, some of them have died! Some have fled from themselves... and I have certainly struggled from there to get here. And these songs somehow knew before I did, how my life would play out.

That is the work of genius.

These pretty songs, with the flowing rhythms, the lush arrangements, sweet vocals, and the slippery, dancing lyrics; they are not just beautiful: they are beauty. There is no "off note", no track that is not worth plumbing for every word and note. If you are caught singing along to this album while stopped at a traffic light, there is no line that will cause you to feel embarrassed; it is that good.

These stories are magical, indeed, and were meant to be sung again and again. Aloud. In front of strangers.

I know the reason I
Feel so blessed
My heart still splashes
Inside my chest...
She Moves On
Pretty words can betray you, mere skill amounts to cleverness, and cleverness wears thin. But these songs are a constant, brilliant reminder of the magical ingredient that keeps this heart splashing: joy. "The cross is in the ballpark", he sings, but it means nothing without that joy. And that really should be Obvious, child.

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