Farm Report Wabi-Sabi

Make text smaller Make text larger

Glen Rock, PA ? When I started this gig a couple of years ago, I was but a simple farmer. I worked the land as my pappy did before me, and my great joy was to tool around the county in my old truck at 6 mph, listening to the country station. People with New York plates would pull up right on my ass, no doubt trying to hear the Faith Hill song pouring out my windows. In a friendly way, they'd wave their guns at me, and I would do likewise. Mine was always bigger.

I was a fool for Nashville. I loved Tim McGraw, Trisha Yearwood, Vince Gill. But then Strausbaugh called, out of the blue, looking for a dignified rural voice to add to New York Press' urban cacophony. Before long, MCA and BMG had stuff in my mailbox every day. That first year, I heard more or less every commercial country album that was released.

I was in heaven. Nashville makes perfect records, down to the last grace note. The songwriting is clever and displays flawless craft. The sentiments are always intense and...sentimental. But a funny thing happened. I started to get fatigued. Every record sounded the same. I couldn't tell which ones to praise and which ones to slam. I couldn't emote to the arrangements. Perfection is boring and boredom is exhausting. I found myself gravitating to stuff that seemed kind of messed up and raw, where the urgency swamps the craft.

Then my favorite fellow Bubba, Jesse Gutierrez, came by to swallow some beers. He told me that he's been studying Japanese esthetics, and that what I was talking about was "wabi-sabi," the beauty of the humble and the imperfect. Wabi-sabi, declaimed Jesse, his thumbs hooked into the straps of his overalls, was developed to its height by 15th-century tea masters who found that the finish of Chinese Ming porcelain began to cloy. They started buying and exalting absolutely plain Korean peasant ware, stuff that was cracked, distressed, flawed. It reminded them of the beauty of nature, autumn leaves on a stone path.

Before long Jesse and I had started our own Ikebana club among county corn farmers. We meet, we drink beer, we talk feed and football, and we arrange flowers according to the ancient school of Ikenobo, of which Jesse is an authorized master. We decorate our homes with bare branches and beautiful blossoms. We've removed the deer heads from our walls and replaced them with tasteful tokonomas, small bonsais, a scroll of calligraphy, perhaps a miniature suiseki. Our wives look at us all funny, but we have not changed our sexual orientation, much, only our approach to interior decoration. You are probably wondering what we listen to as we arrange flowers and achieve sudden enlightenment.


Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Ease Down the Road (Palace Records): This is about the wabi-sabiest music imaginable, and the most beautiful. I admit that until now I had missed the whole "Palace," "Bonnie Prince Billy" etc. lo-fi cult of the Prince of Melancholia Will Oldham. But now I'm all signed up. This is absolutely low-key, sung in a cracked and not particularly tuneful voice, but finally it is a truly beautiful work of art. Celtic, country, folk etc.: it is all Will Oldham's almost silent intensity. I have been listening to it over and over, steeping myself in its peace and truth. Check the second cut, "Careless Love," so simple and quiet it barely exists.

The previous Bonnie "Prince" Billy album I See a Darkness (Palace) was welcomed as a kind of low-fi masterpiece, but Ease Down the Road is ultimately stronger because it's more rooted in musical traditions and more tuneful. It's getting to the point of obsession, at which I just don't want to listen to anything else. That is very bad for a music critic. Dude: get out my head.

Audrey, The Fallen (Reckless): Now I like Lucinda Williams as much as the next critic. I don't review her albums anymore, because The New Yorker and The New York Times will handle her for me, as they will Steve Earle. The New Yorker and The New York Times know so much more than I do. But Lucinda, despite the rough edges on her voice and her words, has a kind of smooth folk-rock thing going that even the warbling chorus of cultural authorities can tolerate. And Lord knows we wouldn't want to complicate things with more than two artists.

This woman Audrey, whose last name is Auld, is Lucinda without the smooth. This is very hardcore country music, written and sung with as much quirky quality as Lucinda on a good day. There really are some masterpieces on this album, notably "I'd Leave Me Too," an anthem of self-loathing: "So darling you're the lucky one/And I wish I were you/I won't stop you when you go/Cause I'd leave me too./But there's no door that I can slam/No I can't walk away/I've been living with myself/Even I don't want to stay."

Now, this may go beyond wabi-sabi into the realm of total disintegration of personality, but the album for the most part is a reminder to the Nashville Ming Dynasty of what country music means and how it sounds. The arrangements are spare but in a sophisticated dialogue with the tradition. The singing has a distressed rightness. But it's the writing, really: the songs.

Libbi Bosworth, Libbiville (Ramble): In the last "Farm Report," I said that Patty Loveless' Mountain Soul was the best country album of the year so far. I take that back. It's Libbiville. Libbi Bosworth is an incredibly sharp songwriter in a trad mode, and she sings the living piss out of her songs here. Her attitude is all kickass Texas and the session is all kickass Texas musicians like Bruce Robison, Gurf Morlix (I wish my fuckin' name was "Gurf Morlix"), Don Walser, Toni Price, etc. "Man Overboard" is a masterpiece, but there are several perfect country songs here (notably "Disappearing Ink" and "Pine Box"). Unlike Audrey, Libbi has the voice to be a country radio diva. And after she gives birth, which seems to be scheduled soon, I suggest that MCA give her a call and start the process of making her the next Yearwood. But there's just enough Austin wabi here to give my tractor traction.

The Yayhoos, Fear Not the Obvious (Bloodshot): When was the last time you heard a kick-ass, straight-up rock 'n' roll record? There still are such things: Nashville Pussy put one out last year. But rock in the sense in which four or five guys get up onstage with guitars and drums and play something that emerges from the blues has seemed almost dead and thus due for a resurgence, because rock 'n' roll is eternal. This album could hardly be better along these lines. The playing and the songwriting are joyful, loose and alive. The singer is Dan Baird (of the Georgia Satellites) and the players include Eric Ambel and the Masterpiece: Keith Christopher on bass. The Rolling Stones should just hire these guys to make their next record, if there is to be a next Rolling Stones record. But what's up with these guys and religion? Have they all really found Jesus or what? Couldn't hurt with the vices. And are they still hanging around with my ex-fiancee, the ever-elusive Aspen?

Matthew Ryan, Concussion (Waxy Silver): Back in the 60s it used to be said that the age was "antiheroic." That was slop. There was nothing but heroes, in music, in politics, everywhere. People were looking for someone, not something. But this age really is antiheroic. Who's our Janis? Our Malcolm X? Our Lennon? Our Kennedys? Our Abbie Hoffman? On the other hand, all those heroes really didn't withstand scrutiny, and that paved the way for the true and happy absence of heroes in which we live today. Now if Matthew Ryan had been recording in 1975, he would have sounded something like Bruce Springsteen sounded in 1975: big as hell, with pretensions so far exceeding his grasp as to make him utterly unlistenable. But it's 2001, and Ryan sounds more like Bonnie Prince Billy. You can still hear the ambition to write something world-shaking, but it's an ambition that has to live in the subdued atmosphere of wabi-sabi. There's even a duet with Lucinda here, but Ryan's own performance is hushed, even where he breaks into a bigger arrangement. This is less dark, less barely existent, than Billy's stuff. It's more like traditional folk music. But it's no less of the moment, the moment that has sickened of sheen and started trying to find the perfection of imperfection.


Make text smaller Make text larger




Subscribe to our mailing list

* indicates required
Neighborhood Newsletters