Thursday, December 13, 2007

with the radio on: technology, authenticity, and fandom

"that is the kind of music i enjoy. real music"

josh ritter walked into my life for the first time in the summer of 2007 when one of my oldest friends and musical influences, steffen, visited me in nyc. i was making a mix tape (read: cd) for a new romantic interest and needed some good stuff to put on it. he assured me that all it needed was a little josh ritter. he cued up a few tracks and i distinctly remember hearing "good man" for the first time: the locomotive, snare driven track, caught me immediately and evoked thoughts of montana, the west, and my close knit group of friends from home. "good man" and "kathleen" snuck onto the mix per steffen's suggestion and as my fondness for jritt grew, i think i eventually listened to the compilation more than the intended party.

steffen is one piece of the community that surrounds josh ritter, and more generally, the alternative/indie-folk/country genre (mix and match as necessary). where i first thought this was a purely interpretive community defined by fans' shared experiences (fish, 1980), looking at steffen and other members' roles within the community made me question that notion. that he actively participates in the scene by accessing music, blogging about it, discussing it, and most importantly, sharing it, leads me to believe that there is an internet propagated sub-culture behind this music. while fans may require physical/local interaction via concerts and festivals in order to maintain the scene, the web seems to fulfill "the basic functions of [the] music scene." (lee and peterson, 2004)

ritter's own myspace page and webpage fulfills many of these roles by hosting a veritable treasure trove of streaming media content, a message board, and most importantly provides a venue for fans to interact with one another. here ritter is assisted by an army of enthusiastic fans: josh ritter's street team. these individuals volunteer to promote josh ritter's music throughout the u.s. and europe. while this grassroots community still may be based on its individuals' appreciation of ritter's music, the level of interaction speaks to a tighter knit subculture. hopefully it's just a matter of time until we hear a clever jritt song about aspen groves. disclaimer: i don't mean to say that this virtual community paradigm is bound to jritt or other offshoots of the genre. rather, it is just a scene that i have had the most exposure as a participant-observer and have noted the strong role the internet has played in its proliferation.

as an aside, (and building on the idea of technology's changing of music) i think it is interesting to note that ethnomusicologist philip auslander positions rock performances as supplements to recordings and that they function to authenticate the music of an artist in a real space. (auslander, 1998) i would argue that the decline of the recording industry has left concerts as the crux of the music industry. maybe for the first time since mass production touched music, fans place a higher level of import on live performances, and recordings now serve a supporting role for the concert. but i digress...

after i made the mix cd and became something of a rhizome myself, steffen bestowed unto me ritter's newest album, "the historical conquests of josh ritter." i could immediately hear stylistic differences between it and his previous release, "the animal years" as it seemed bolder, richer, and definitely catchier. arguably geared more towards a mainstream audience, the new release made me wonder first what fans of this genre value, and consequently what happens when a relatively unknown talent makes their transition to popularity.

in all of the message board posts, interviews, and discussions i have read/conducted/heard about ritter's music, his authenticity seems to be perpetually linked with fan appreciation. while ethnomusicologists might think about authenticity as it relates to the accumulation of cultural capital by participants in a scene (bourdieu, 1973), and the frankfurt school at times positions authentic as sophisticated and not-contrived, but as it relates to the performer, authenticity most closely implies sincerity. accounts from steffen and another street team member, andy, have all pointed to the "realness" of ritter's character, particularly his enthusiasm, as the foundation for their fandom. i should note that this notion of realness is at odds with the value scale associated with the mainstream version of the genre, pop country, as barbara ching notes, "country music often functions as a sly, even campy, announcement of the fact that it is a performance." (ching, 1997) while my friends' encounters with ritter have confirmed his identity as a "real" guy, steffen noted a disenchantment with sufjan stevens after meeting with him following a chicago show. do i really need to explain why:

my interview with andy revealed a similar loss of appeal with the decemberists as lead man colin meloy began employing an overly flamboyant stage persona... well as with iron & wine's sam beam, who has composed seemingly less sincere lyrical content in his recent work. note beam's hushed acoustic style with an extremely cohesive lyrical arc in one of his earlier songs, "upward over the mountain":

vs. as andy put it in an interview, the way he has recently taken to juxtaposing images over a fuller orchestration with an emphasis on rhythm percussion. this makes for a relatively more incoherent, yet potentially evocative song type, such as "white tooth man":

colin meloy notes, "my stage identity is certainly different than who i am in real life," while interviews with beam make it clear that he is a sort of accidental musician who is often more comfortable at home with family than on tour.

i don't mean to say these artists are necessarily worse for their growing performance and composition styles, but rather it misaligns with a number of fans' value scales. in fact, i love "the shepherd's dog," beam's most recent release, but it clearly lack the coherency that andy and others valued in "the creek drank the cradle" and "our endless numbered days."

while these artists have lost some of their fanbase as their musical styles have evolved, ritter's fans appreciate him beyond his clever lyrics and catchy melodies. as he has changed styles and left his comfort zone, his fans have welcomed the transition noting that he has not lost his on stage sincerity. throughout his historical conquests, ritter seems to have always won his audiences by singing through his smile:

doesn't it just make you happy to see him perform? his recordings are fantastic, his music in general very captivating, but it is his on stage sincerity and real personality that seem to grab his audience the most. and that was the case for me. in october of 2007, i left my first josh ritter concert with a grin to match the performer's, a taste for americana, and a little more faith in popular music.

works cited:

Auslander, Philip. "Seeing is Believing: Live Performance and the Discourse of Authenticity in Rock Culture." Literature and Psychology: a journal of psychoanalytic and cultural criticism, Vol. 44, No. 4, 1998.

Bourdieu, Pierre. "Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste." Trans. Richard Nice. Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1984.

Ching, Barbara. "Acting Naturally: Cultural Distinction and Critiques of Pure Country." White Trash: race and class in America. Routledge: New York, NY, 1997.

Fish, Stanley. "Is there a text in this class?: The authority of interpretive communities." Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1980.

Lee, Steve S., and Richard A. Peterson. "Internet-based virtual music scenes: the case of P2 in Alt.Country music." Music Scenes: local, translocal and virtual. Vanderbilt University Press: Nashville, 2004.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

oh chariots, if you're out there, please swing low.

An interview with one of my close friends that introduced me to a lot of the music I listen to now. Definitely a huge musical influence on me, with perhaps a different value scale for appreciating his music. An interesting look at the perceived community of the scene.

James Isbell: i've talked to steffen a bit about this stuff, and it seems that you got him into josh ritter...he recalls listening to harrisburg over and over in your basement which got him going
Andy: that's right, harrisburg and Wings
Andy: which i got from Seanman
James Isbell: really?! Seanman is the source of the Josh Ritter love with you guys then?
Andy: yep
Andy: he heard it at the bozeman indie film festival
Andy: in a trailer
James Isbell: wow...that is so bizarre
James Isbell: when was this? long before animal years?
Andy: yeah, i think spring semester senior year
7:10 PM
James Isbell: i think i recall hearing you guys play Me & Jiggs around then
Andy: then i got hello starling when it came out, i think, fall semester freshman year
James Isbell: it didn't completely grab me but I did like it
Andy: yeah, the time frame's a bit fuzzy
Andy: but definitely a fan by Xmas freshman year
James Isbell: maybe all the lewis and clark?
Andy: oh yes
Andy: and "and I'm just waitin for the whiskey to whisk me away"
James Isbell: ha...mispent youths right?
Andy: or wellspent
James Isbell: well...i know that you guys helped poster/flyer around boston for his did you get involved in the scene?
Andy: either way, the well's not dry
Andy: well
Andy: i've known about street team stuff for a while
Andy: and about a year ago miles and steffen started doing it
Andy: and got to know the street team manager
Andy: and got a bunch of stuff signed
Andy: so we got in that way
James Isbell: do a lot of the street team people knowk eachother?
Andy: after Josh talked to miles after his show in january for a long time, the deal was sealed
Andy: Yeah, the message boards are pretty spot on
Andy: people car pool hours to shows
Andy: crash at other street teamers houses, etc
Andy: via the message boards on his website
James Isbell: ahhhh, would you categorize it as a community then?
Andy: definitely
James Isbell: there is that much interaction you think?
James Isbell: I remember the story about Miles finding that old lady for you guys to stay with in Sandpoint and maybe I haven't laughed as hard in years...but od a lot of crazy things like that happen?
Andy: i'd say that was unusually awesome
Andy: but definitely not unheard of
Andy: the scale at which it happened at sandpoint was the unusual part
Andy: but i wouldn't say its unusual for a street teamer to let a fellow street teamer crash at their place
Andy: via the show
7:15 PM
James Isbell: that's fantastic
Andy: because when there's that deep seeded common interest
James Isbell: and this all is started basically from an interest in the music...and then via a virtual connection? would that make it an internet culture?
Andy: well, parts of it are internet culture
Andy: the message boards, definitely
Andy: and that is where some of it begins,
Andy: but the woman at sandpoint we met at the show because we were waiting in line to meet josh
Andy: and she was behind us
Andy: and she wasn't a streat teamer, to the best of my knowledge
Andy: so thats, actual rather than virtual
James Isbell: crazy story man....
James Isbell: well, so you got josh from about Iron and Wine...what turned you on to Sam Beam?
Andy: seanman, too
Andy: in french class, senior year spring semester
Andy: he played it while we used to study, because Madame Mends used to let us play music if it was chill enough
James Isbell: this is changing my whole world right now
Andy: and I&W is maxchill
James Isbell: seanman the source of all of my music
Andy: yeah, but he left it behind, really
Andy: cause his passion is more changing and new music
James Isbell: i see i see
Andy: rather than the niche that Jrit and Sam Beam fill
James Isbell: well...i know that you at least used to love Sam Beam...what about his music attracted you to him?
Andy: initially the sound
Andy: and the chillness of it, sleeptime music was the sugar on the pill
Andy: for me, at least, and i think that would be a common sentiment
Andy: but then once i began to listen to it more, and louder, the coherency of Creek drank the cradle as an album really did it for me
Andy: and then it became much more about the lyrics
7:20 PM
James Isbell: and did that lyrical content stay strong for you at least for a while...say through Woman King?
Andy: yeah, i would
Andy: woman king started the movement that beam is still in right now
Andy: where he started moving away from imagery that was linear and coherent
Andy: and in woman king he started juxtaposing images
Andy: but i think it worked in that album, especially the song woman king
Andy: once it got enough listens, you got a coherent map through the lyrics that's gone in Sheps Dog
James Isbell: when you say juxtaposing kind of evokes a notion of randomness for did you feel about this transition?
Andy: well, juxtaposing images and randomness are different
James Isbell: so have you changed your mind a bit about the shepards dog? still hate that song about the Devil that Miles and Steffen love?
Andy: yeah, i do
Andy: juxtaposing images can create a big, broad picture
Andy: that wouldn't be created if you kept a solid, linear feel
Andy: EG
Andy: umm
Andy: juxtaposing "black horse fly, lemonade, jar on a red ant hill"
Andy: i think that's the line
Andy: that line, taken alone, doesn't make alot of sense
Andy: but when you get each time-slice image from the song woman king
Andy: like "garden worm, ash on a windowsill"
Andy: you can kind of make a connection between the two, even if it wasn't intentional on sam beams part
Andy: author intent with beam is a lot different than with ritter
Andy: and ritter moved in the direction of absolute coherency, where beam moved away
James Isbell: do you think that his intentions are still there? or can he just put a bunch of lines together with a chill sound and sell albums?
Andy: yeah, no coherency on shep's dog
Andy: i gave it a thorough 10 times through while i was in turkey
Andy: a couple of times with paper and pen in hand
Andy: trying to create a map of themes
Andy: but i think he's faking it
Andy: and i think by mentioning "dogs" so many times in the album
Andy: he's trying to trick the reader into thinking there is a theme there that isn't
Andy: especially made apparent by the last song in the album
7:25 PM
Andy: which is just utter nonsense
James Isbell: hahah
James Isbell: might be my favorite
Andy: agreed
James Isbell: but i prefer numbers to words as we all know
Andy: it is my favorite on the album
James Isbell: but doesn't tie in with the record?
Andy: well, it ties in with the record fine
Andy: because the rest of the album is garbage jibberish, too
Andy: but has none of the amazing emotion evoking lines that were present in his "unknown early sessions"
Andy: like in the song "two hungry blackbirds"
James Isbell: i'm not familiar actually
Andy: good song
Andy: you want it?
James Isbell: i might have gotten it from one of you guys ages ago but i should check it out
Andy: yeah: the consistency of the lyrics on unknown early sessions, (its an album), is Beams best by far
Andy: other than portions of the first two albums
Andy: all the songs he did with calexico were from unknown early sessions
James Isbell: i thought that the consistency on Endless Numbered was pretty amazing
Andy: agreed, passing afternoon is a pinnacle of a "song in itself"
James Isbell: perfect...
Andy: that can exist without preface or explanation, all the while the more you get into it the more you get out it
James Isbell: steffen and i have noted the importance of authenticity in the music we both listen does this figure in for your listening preferences?
Andy: hmm authenticity in what way?
Andy: genuine-ness?
Andy: originality?
James Isbell: maybe genuine to the character of the artists
Andy: interesting question, because one of my other favorite groups, The Silver Jews, is the apotheosis of non-genuine
7:30 PM
Andy: they are the inconsistency that is present in Shep's Dog taken to the extreme, and therefore awesome
James Isbell: does it vary in importance depending on the genre?
Andy: well, Silver Jews is still pretty folky
James Isbell: ahhh i'm no familiar
Andy: but they don't try to sell it as something profound or coherent
Andy: well, they have lines like "When the sunsets on the ghetto all the broken stuff gets cold"
Andy: or "Holding up your trousers with extension chords"
Andy: while the singer is almost spoken word, and constantly off key
James Isbell: do you think Sam Beam just gets looped into that? i think he might be more comfortable touring with Phish or String Cheese just to jam
Andy: agreed, definitely at this point he is
Andy: and I think the power that Beam holds comes from intimate shows where his genuine-ness or authenticity can be explored by the listener
Andy: because it almost doesnt matter how genuine he is
Andy: as long as the listener believes him
Andy: and its hard to believe sam-as-phish
James Isbell: i agree that maybe that's where he shines...maybe because he's not the most talented musician...unlike Andrew Bird who could say whatever the hell he wanted and i would still think he's amazing
Andy: yeah
Andy: and when jrit took a turn away from the 'authenticity'
Andy: he did it in a pleasing, entertaining fashion
Andy: thats present all over historical conquests
Andy: even in the title
James Isbell: you think this last album is away from his style?
James Isbell: or maybe himself?
Andy: oh yeah, definitely
James Isbell: is it him growing though?
Andy: but its intentional and awesome
James Isbell: or do you think it's uncomfortable for him?
Andy: i dont know if i'd call it growing
Andy: hmm good question
Andy: since i dont think he's uncomfortable
James Isbell: I guess you would say...a stretch
Andy: maybe you could call it growth
James Isbell: maybe forced by his keyboard guy?
Andy: but not stretched like a screen, because i don't think its more thin
James Isbell: kind of pushed?
Andy: i'm not sure the affect sam kisserer has on josh
Andy: maybe not even pushed
Andy: lets say, laterally transposed
James Isbell: I'll take you think it is a a step away from his former more authentic music....but not offensively so?
Andy: well, if you're equating authentic to autobiographical
Andy: then yes
Andy: and definitely not offensively so
7:35 PM
Andy: because alot of his songs are ridiculously relateable
Andy: like "right moves"
James Isbell: how about authentic as original or maybe even inaccessible...does his music speak to that?
Andy: inaccessable?
Andy: how so?
James Isbell: sometimes i feel like inaccessibility....the intensity or difficulty of listening to a particular genre....i'm not sure if i'm being clear here....can be considered a plus by insiders....maybe like a lot of radiohead....or mabye even harder punk or metal
Andy: ah, okay
James Isbell: do you think ritter's clever lyrical content makes it a more challenging and therefore pleasing listen?
Andy: well, i'll answer your question in two ways
Andy: first: i think ritter's accessability is key
James Isbell: melodically and emotionally?
Andy: his knew album has been called "MOR"(middle of the road)
Andy: man, both, really
Andy: i don't think he's exploring depths of the human soul
Andy: i think he's making clever, relatable rhythms and rhymes
Andy: but then again i probably don't represent normal people's feeling on that
Andy: since i just finished Paradise Lost for the fifth time
James Isbell: you always were the smarty pants
Andy: heh
Andy: as to "being a plus for insiders"
Andy: i think theres merit to that
James Isbell: it definitely took me a lot of listens to get a grip on his content
Andy: but not with ritter, realy
7:40 PM
Andy: *really
Andy: i think with Sam Beam there was more
James Isbell: which might just speak to my lack of attention to lyrics
Andy: especially when people thought he "sold out" for the garden state soundtrack et all
Andy: but then he turned around and performed his masterwork for a no-where movie (in good company)
James Isbell: i thought that came out of nowhere
James Isbell: but amazing
Andy: and he killed his own darling when he said that -- "i just watched the movie, had a feeling about it, and wrote the song [trapeze swinger]"
James Isbell: i'll never forget how many times you played that in your basement
James Isbell: haha....oh Sam
Andy: i'm close to 3000 plays over all
James Isbell: disgusting/awesome
Andy: but still, that song has a relatability that completely eclipses his intent

i'm inside with my friends we build fires and pretend that the night could just bend on forever

A conclusion to my previous discussion with Steffen about some of these themes surrounding Josh Ritter, the folk genre, and a breeding internet culture...

James Isbell: well...i was going to ask how you got introduced to Josh Ritter?
Steffen: harrisburg was the first song
Steffen: it was in andy's basement
Steffen: andy had left the song on for over 1000 plays
Steffen: so it was on a lot
Steffen: then i started diving into more of his stuff
James Isbell: Oh god...i remember when he did that with the trapeze was like 100 years of sadness down there
Steffen: so word of mouth/ p2p sites
Steffen: or wonderment
Steffen: how ever you want to look at it
James Isbell: do you normally get into newer're the guy i go to...but where do you hear about this stuff?
Steffen: reading blogs
Steffen: downloading a lot
Steffen: i may have all the music
Steffen: but i have my people finding what i should download
Steffen: the confederossy has a music thread
Steffen: and i can see who is listening to what
Steffen: JonET, Joe Y, Andy, Ross
James Isbell: i would you say that it's an internet culture? kind of technologically spurred?
Steffen: yes
7:10 PM
Steffen: i don’t think i would be into as much if i had to buy all these albums
Steffen: joe on the other hand buys all the music'
James Isbell: is that unique to this culture...or would you say all music these days?
Steffen: he hears of a band and buys their album
Steffen: and checks it out
James Isbell: that's right..he did buy those albums in chicago just kind of out of the blue
James Isbell: it seems like something that either of us would never do
Steffen: having free access to all of it makes it easy to sample what ever you want
James Isbell: and get the best?
James Isbell: this all kind of leads me to my next big there an underlying culture around Josh Ritter/ all this new alt country/folk music...if so, how can you categorize it?
Steffen: i think the independent music culture lets people attach themselves to an artist that is just coming up
Steffen: they can feel some personal commitment to the music
Steffen: and feel they are supporting the artist by spreading the word
James Isbell: but is there a community among listeners?
Steffen: i think Ritter is a big with our group because he seem genuinely like someone I would hang out with
Steffen: people love to talk shop like minded people
7:15 PM
James Isbell: No, I couldn't agree more about that...and it seems that his authenticity and just good nature are really what win him over for all of you guys
Steffen: yea i think people can see that he is authentic
Steffen: and they like that
Steffen: there are not many people who are authentic these days
James Isbell: do you think he's in danger of losing that authentic appeal as he grows in popularity...or would it be possible for him to keep his same Idaho small town appeal
Steffen: i don’t see him loosing it
Steffen: i think that is just how he is
Steffen: so his music will always reflect himself
James Isbell: but that theme seems prevalent with other upcoming artists
James Isbell: he has a higher immunity to it by nature?
Steffen: yes
Steffen: you don’t hear talk of Josh ritter selling out to the man
Steffen: but there was a bunch of chat about the decemberists
Steffen: when they were getting older
James Isbell: well...he did get very lucky recently getting dropped by V2 with all of his own rights
Steffen: and there albums began to change
Steffen: their intent changed
Steffen: where i feel ritters is the same
7:20 PM
James Isbell: I imagine that it could have gone a different way for him if the timing of their collapse hadn't been so perfect
James Isbell: I understand that he got to record Historical Conquests on his own without any corporate input...but will that model really hold for his next...probably highly anticipated and more easily marketed album?
Steffen: josh ritter is not seeing any radio play
Steffen: except for NPR
Steffen: i don’t see how he could get commercialized
Steffen: is his next album going to be highly anticipated?
Steffen: i don’t think so
James Isbell: but he is getting critical acclaim and internet buzz...and the way things have gone, i think you could make an argument that these are becoming more important
Steffen: by us it will
Steffen: his target market is middle aged women
James Isbell: haha really?
Steffen: who don’t use the internet
James Isbell: i think my mother loves him
Steffen: the internet buzz may seem big just because he is huge in our eyes
Steffen: i don’t disagree that he is getting more press
Steffen: but i think it is good press
Steffen: the fact that pitchfork will not even touch the guy seems good for his career
James Isbell: i understand that it is a little bit different that I actually google his name and check him out
Steffen: they reviewed an album a while back
James Isbell: oh god...pitchfork gave Historical Conquests like a 6.4 because a guy said it was too methodical and perfect...not enough spontaneity
7:25 PM
Steffen: but they don’t report news on him
Steffen: just review 2 of his 4 albums
James Isbell: i noticed they didn't review animal years, which was very interesting
Steffen: yep
Steffen: and the review for Hello Starling was more about Golden Age of Radio
Steffen: but he is authentic and i believe his music
Steffen: i dont see him making any big change
Steffen: his music has progressed but it is built on the same foundation
Steffen: as i watched the decemberists add crazy antics to their live show and crazy epic songs to their albums i believed them less and less
James Isbell: just more of an act at that point?
Steffen: then the masses (who are not as smart as me) flocked to them because it is entertainment
Steffen: but i am in it for the music
Steffen: that happens to entertain me
James Isbell: ahhh...
Steffen: not the entertainment that happens to sound alright
James Isbell: i know...the kind of man that prefers to sit at a concert
James Isbell: my kind of man
James Isbell: well great man....i guess that covers the stuff that i wanted to ask...mainly the internet community connection
James Isbell: anything else you want to say on that?
7:30 PM
Steffen: i would not have the music i do without the internet
Steffen: and the p2p connections are great places to find new artists

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Comment Links!

A comment on Eva's blog -

Common on Caitlin B.'s blog -

Friday, November 30, 2007

No more snow, no more snow.

A casual thanksgiving week in Chicago has helped fuel my understanding of my subject matter a bit. I spent the time with many of my highschool friends that have strongly influenced my musical preferences: they have introduced me to many of the artists that I spend my time enjoying. We had many informal conversations about music in general and occasionally I would try to push a subject or play the devil's advocate. We listened to music almost constantly on Steffen's 5.1 surround system while playing Wii, board games, or just sitting around and talking. While basting the turkey At one point, there was some downtime before we planned to go to the museum of contemporary art and ended up watching In the Dark: Live at Vicar Street, a DVD recording of a Josh Ritter concert in Ireland. The main theme that emerged in conversations with all of my friends was their emphasis on authenticity in music making. Comments were made about their adoration for Josh Ritter and their somewhat wilted appreciation for the seemingly "just going with the flow" Sam Beam of Iron & Wine. It seemed that they all had value scales that emphasized the sincereity, or as Steffen had previously coined it "realness", with which their favorite artists created their music.

I have interviews scheduled with my friends Andy and Joe soon and I hope to highlight their individual value scales and rationales for specific listening choices.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Interesting WSJ Article

This article is a bit off course from my research topic, but I think that it highlights a bit of what Steffen said in our discussion, as well as some ideas that I have written about in the past for other music classes.

Music Test: Can a Firm Profit From Free Tunes?:

Off to Chicago this weekend to hopefully have a week of jazz, turkey, and some great discussions about music.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Steffen Interview - November 5, 2007

Steffen Rasile is one of my closest friends that I've known since elementary school in Helena, MT. He is a college senior at Columbia College in Chicago, IL and has been extremely active in musical consumption. He is the guy I go to in order to find new good music. This interview was conducted on instant messenger so that transcription could be complete and accurate. This interviewing method is obviously lacking in the fact that non-verbal cues cannot be noticed. It is however a productive medium as interviewees can generate thoughtful responses and not feel too pressured by time constraints or silence.

James Isbell: Would you say that there is anything inherent to the genre of music you enjoy (mainly folk right?) that draws you to it?
Steffen Rasile: i grew up with my parents playing folksy instruments. they met in a bluegrass band. so it gives me a nice feeling. and it feels real. and that is the kind of music that i enjoy. real music. genres don’t make sense to me
JI: Realness...that is an interesting question, and one that I think is really relevant to our how do you describe your musical interests if you don't have genre's that you prescribe to?
SR: and i have a lot of trouble putting bands into a genre. music is created to experience. if a song or album can lead me through a path mentally that i can relate to or feel something, you will find it on my ipod more often
JI: When you say it "feels real"...i take it to mean that you consider authenticity to be particularly important in the music you listen to. Could you possibly describe these notions of authenticity, or rather what would make a band you listen to "real"?
SR: to use Josh Ritter as an example
JI: I thought you might.
SR: when i hear his music i can picture the kind of person that music is coming out of. i know that person. and it just so happens that Josh Ritter is who his music sounds like. there are other artists that i have a mental impression of that in real life are not worthy of
JI: So are you saying that Josh Ritter's personality, appearance, and music come together, that they fit? Is there a band that you could describe as kind of violating these notions of realness?
SR: i was really into sufjan for a while and after meeting him and exchanging a few words i got a weird vibe that made me question the music again. granted i still enjoy his tunes but i am not scouring the internet for his rare tracks anymore
JI: I was going to ask about Sufjan, but you beat me to it. I remember that you used to be a pretty devout fan, and then seemed to push his music aside for other up and coming artists. This departure all started after you met him then?
SR: well i stayed with him for a while. once i came to the realization that i was not going to be able to collect all 50 state albums i kind of push him away. i have recently rediscovered him again though. he has a cool project about the BQE in New York
SR: Brooklyn Queens Expressway. it is a video piece with a 20 minute sufjan symphony
JI: Ah, that would tie into his research based lyrical writing stye, would it? Just wondering, how did his personality seem to violate the music that he was creating. What seemed false about it?
SR: i guess now i can see how a timid introverted guy like him can make the music he makes. But i had him built up in my mind as this grand character. he was really the first artist that i followed. so it was more of a different personal reaction that made me reevaluate him. it also comes down to the fact that i dont believe him
JI: about?
SR: he lied about the 50 states. so why should i trust what he says in his songs
JI: He said he was going to write all 50 albums?
SR: he did. i think the same thing happened to andy with sam beam
JI: Ahhh, that comment from the Pabst show?
SR: at that pabst show he said that he does not even know what his song are about. and andy loved explaining the songs. it was over my head and i had my own interpretations that worked for me
JI: Ha, he always did love picking them apart...He definitely did not seem to enjoy the Iron & Wine show in Boston as much as two years ago when I went with him.
SR: yea. it is a different kind of music now…natural progression though…i think it is great. i know that sam will keep pushing out music. and he is getting older now. he will always have the songs that we love him for
JI: That is an interesting thought...this natural progression of popularity in artists and the way that their music in your opinion, could that have compromised Sufjan, or any of the artists' work that we have discussed. Does it necessarily, or is it purely audience back lash?
SR: in this age where there is so much music out there. people like to have something that others don’t have. that is why i have so much music. i listen to less than 6 gb of my 160 gb of music. when a larger audience gets the music,the artists are going to profit and be able to reach more people and the audiences will grow more.
JI: but does that necessarily change the quality of intentions of the artist? or does that even matter? is it just the sudden accessibility of it that makes it unappealing?
SR: if the artist has the music to back their success of distribution. then it will naturally grow. if they are forced to push out music that is not of the same quality of the previous they should not release it. the internet is such a powerful tool today. if an artist like sufjan was looking to get some press or feedback on a certain track or idea all he would have to do is leak it to pitchfork and the internet would be buzzing with the bells of sufjan...i am leaving the topic here…
JI: it's fine...we're just talking afterall
SR: have you read this article
JI: No, I haven't yet, but I'll be sure to check it out now.
SR: it is a great look at the record industry and oink. music has changed. music is secondary the promotion and branding for an artist
JI: After I read it maybe we'll have a chance to talk about this in a less formal setting....but you seem to think that the internet could be used as a tool to improve musical quality...are artists just completely missing out on this? Would it compromise their own authenticity to get input from the audience so easily?
10:55 PM
SR: they make more money performing and selling merchandise than they do on album sales. having music readily accessible is a huge perk for me and if i can have your song for free i will give it a listen. if i like you i will go to your show. if your cd has a sweet album cover i will buy your album
JI: That, I guess speaks to the strength of the music industry and really the decline of the record industry...
SR: yes, and it is hurting the music that we all love and forcing people to fizzle out under the thumb of the industry.
JI: But superstars, like Radiohead, can make deals on their own terms and really prosper, can't they?
SR: they made almost 9 million dollars on in rainbows. just digital downloads…that is a 9 million dollar tip hat for 10 songs they recorded in their house
JI: The talent is there, and they can gain enough bargaining power to not compromise their vision. But is it not in the industry's best interest to promote the musicality and talent of their artists?
JI: maybe we should get back to topic here, briefly...although I'd love to talk about this all later...I guess, My question to you, is to perhaps give some insight to the social phenomenon, if it exists, of audiences losing interest on artists based purely on the popularity that their music enjoys?
SR: i dont think people like to share
JI: Do you think that can help explain Sam Beam's and Sufjan's decline in "indie" popularity?
SR: their decline in Indie popularity is correct. they are now in a differnent genre. they may not be poplar with the "indie kids" but a whole new social group has them now.
JI: Perhaps this is obvious, do you think these formerly underground pop/folk artists could be used as cultural capital within a specific scene? That is, people use them as leverage to advance social position, and then when the popularity catches on, they lose their appeal?
SR: when the oc was around, it played "indie" music all the time. it would rock the indie news circles. indie artists do the theme of weeks. each week it is a different artist
JI: Do these fans ever take time to enjoy the music though?
SR: i do
JI: I know you do, old man.
SR: the internet does. they are being greeted very well. because the show is good and is about pot. the oc was a trashy soap opera
JI: Oh man, well, hey Steffen, thanks so much for your time...I feel like I did a bad job pointing the discussion. is there anything that you would like to add?
SR: i think that genreless music is a thing of the near future with the dying pop music scene and the rise of indie folk starts to rear their heads into the mainstream. the good artists will rise to the top and everyone will enjoy their tunes no matter who you are.
JI: You don't think that this is just part of the whole cycle though? Of the redefinition of mainstream pop?
SR: there have only been 2 pop explosions ever: elvis and the beatles. no one will ever do that again. if you hear the song it is pop. it is popular enough with you to notice it is playing
JI: i like that idea, there is so much music out there that anything you notice should probably be described as popular
SR: if it is on the internet it is poplar
JI: like Jack Isbell?
SR: i have it. you have it. 2 people. people want it

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

She Just Came Along and Started to Ignore Me

A video from the Somerville Theatre Show of Josh Ritter playing The Temptation of Adam!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I'm Singing for the Love of It

“Great,” I thought, “the T is on fire.”
Indeed, Boston’s relic of a subway system had shut down due to a small trash fire near the park station stop on the green line. Floods of people poured through the Commons as they wandered aimlessly and shouted into cell phones, presumably complaining about ruined travel plans for Columbus Day Weekend. I could not help but laugh, thinking about the last time Mike had visited: the whole Manhattan MTA had flooded and been shut down during an August 8th storm. I had been among the screamers that day, as I walked a soaking 40 blocks to get to work.

“Public transit seems to suffer whenever we get together,” I laughed. Mike, my 6’2”, bearded, jolly, whale of a friend chuckled at my observation and added, “I guess as long as we can get to Somerville by 9:00, we should be fine.” Clearly, we were not as grumpy, or as inconvenienced, as all of the busy bodied commuters hustling through the commons that afternoon. In the face of being marooned, we welcomed a walk on an otherwise beautiful fall day. And as the rest of Boston toiled over the subway problem, the Redsox game that evening versus the Angels, and getting out of town, Mike and I meandered northwest towards a small theatre that held the promise of entertainment – a rock concert.

Mike is a self-proclaimed Josh Ritter super fan, and the one responsible for my keenness of the Moscow, ID songwriter. He had flown to Boston three days earlier to visit a string of Montana friends, and moreover, to witness his 8th and 9th Josh Ritter concerts at the quaint and charming Somerville Theatre, tucked next to Tufts Universities’ main campus in Davis Square. Clearly an insider among the Josh Ritter scene, Mike had spent the previous day volunteering for Josh Ritter’s “Street Team,” posting flyers around Harvard Square with another Montana friend that we were to meet at the concert that evening.
We arrived at Davis Square to find a throng of street performers and college students lingering outside, singing songs and beating drums in what was a seemingly hip and musically oriented area. We headed towards the theatre and presented our tickets to gain access to the small seated venue. An hour late, we missed the opening act, which according to our friends, was received by the audience quite well. In a word, the crowd seemed to be overwhelmingly bearded, most noticeably my troupe of Montana friends. This plethora of facial hair seemed overwhelmingly obvious to me, as my youthful demeanor had earned me the moniker, “skin-face” among my male friends, and also ensured the bartender asked me my birthday as I requested a pint of the UFO IPA, despite the bracelet that professed I was of the legal drinking age. Twenty something young professionals and students dominated the crowd, and it seemed to be fairly homogenous in demographic – white males: most likely an indication of the country influenced style that Josh Ritter performs. “Flannels and beards everywhere,” I thought, “but not nearly as much as the Iron & Wine show last week.” I noticed a table with merchandise set up at the entrance to the theatre and a man selling green trucker hats with the lone word “Jiggs” printed across front –a reference to a song from Josh Ritter’s Golden Age of Radio – a testament to the cowboy/western culture that is intertwined with Josh Ritter’s music.

Built in 1914, the theatre itself is a remnant of the Great War era, and was designed as a performance venue for plays, opera, vaudeville, and “that new fad, motion pictures.” The main stage has capacity for approximately 900 guests, including balcony seating, and has only 16 rows in the main orchestra seating section, making all performances extremely intimate. Although used primarily for motion pictures, the venue was designed with and retains startlingly strong acoustic qualities that reinforce and distribute sound without overwhelming the audience. Such a small area could be problematic for more raucous bands, but the presence of mandatory seating due to fire codes usually deter such acts from touring through Somerville.

The lights flashed and concertgoers scurried from the lobby to take their seats in the theatre. I found my seat at the back of the orchestra section and waited as audience members spoke in hushed tones of anticipation. With a huge grin, Josh Ritter entered the stage to a raucous applause. Wearing a stylish gray suit to compliment a clean shave, it occurred to me that his appearance was a far departure from his earlier days with a bushy red beard and a black Stetson. As if to steer my thoughts away from this realization, Josh Ritter and his four piece band launched into To the Dogs or Whoever, track one on his new album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter. The soundman had done his job well, and instrument and vocal levels seemed very well balanced but still promoted the driving nature of the song that included a wandering bass line and strong synth-organ harmonies. After just a few measures, the audience, myself included, roared him on in a moment of recognition and approval.

The clangy upbeat sound makes the song seem like it could just as easily fit in a 1850’s saloon, but listening closely to the lyrics reveals that this is not your average country song from an anything but average lyricist. In the first verse alone, Josh references Florence Nightingale, Calamity Jane, and Joan of Arc and then dedicates an individual stanza to each of them as the song progresses. Near the end of the song, Josh Ritter questions,

“Was it Casey Jones, or Casey at the Bat, that died out of pride and got famous for that? Killed by a swerve, laid low by the curve, do you ever think they ever thought they got what they deserved?”

Lyrics such as these explain the comparisons that are drawn to Bruce Springstein, Townes Van Zandt, and most notably, Bob Dylan - the icons of American song writing – and help establish Josh Ritter as one of the most clever, if not talented, song writers performing today.

The earnest enthusiasm that Josh Ritter has become famous for was palpable during the song. A grin that stretched ear to ear spoke to the fervor of his performance and stage presence – a wholly contagious combination – and perusing the faces of the audience, the ostensible smiles challenged that of the troubadour on stage. The crowd went wild at the conclusion of the song, and I looked over to see Mike and Harry, the friend that we met at the concert, hooting and hollering with arms in the air. “Thanks to you for being here!” Josh said into the microphone and then kidded, “I know that the T was on fire or something today, and that there’s some kind of ball game going on tonight, so I just can’t thank you all enough for coming out to see me here.” As he progressed with his set list, there were no shouts from the crowd of song requests – no chattering and no drunken babbling – and it became apparent that the awestruck audience, like Josh Ritter, was just happy to be there.

A large proportion of the set list coming from Josh Ritter’s recent album, which released on August 21 in the US, the crowd was able to discern all of the new material and soaked up the performance. I even caught Mike and Harry racing one another to identify tunes before the general audience could figure them out - “perhaps an JRitt-cred battle”, I thought. Ritter, however, did perform a number of fan favorites from previous albums such as the snare drum driven Good Man, the biblical referencing Girl in the War, the Huckleberry Finn alluding Monster Ballads, and in the bridge of Harrisburg, surprisingly launched into a cover of Tiny Cities Made of Ashes by Modest Mouse. Rarely wiping the smile from his face, after every few songs Ritter would lean into the microphone and thank the audience again. The golden moment of the show came when backed by the brass section of the opening act, Old School Freight Train, Josh Ritter began playing The Temptation of Adam, or as he labeled it, “a song about what it would take to get a girlfriend.”

The song describes a man and a woman meeting for the first time as they enter a missile-silo, supposedly to avoid fall-out from the onset of World War III. While the subject matter is inherently grave, Josh Ritter’s lyrics focus on the love that emerges between the two residents and the male’s consequent concern that at the conclusion of the war, their romance would no longer flourish. In this song, Ritter evokes more imagery and emotion in 10 stanzas than most authors do in whole novels, and he seems to capture and portray his characters perfectly. The lingering effect of the song is one of sincere sentimentality, and Ritter achieves this through his use of a tender melody placed over a reflective chord progression (IV, I, iii7, vi, I, V, I), played on acoustic guitar, and accompanied in sections by horns and synth-organ. The gravity and grace of the song however, are juxtaposed with beautifully clever and playful lyrics that leave the listener unclear how to best appreciate Ritter’s work.

As Josh weaved through the complex finger picking pattern on his acoustic guitar he delicately sang through his smile with a hollow voice that seemed on the threshold of cracking. I searched the audience again to witness the serenity, calm, and halcyon enjoyment leaking from the crowd and it became clear to me that this sold-out house truly appreciated the sincerity with which Josh Ritter performed as well as the effort he put in to make every song perfect both on stage and in recording. Mike reaffirmed my suspicions, later adding, “He’s just having a great time up there and the audience really recognizes that and takes it to heart. I’ve been to a lot of shows where the band just seems to be going through the motions and that same indifference has an effect on the crowd. But with Josh – and this is my ninth show now – no matter how popular he’s gotten, he is just almost…awestruck that people actually like listening to his music.” Immediately, I thought of a lyric from The Snow is Gone on his second album: “I’m singing for the love of it, have mercy on the man who sings to be adored.” While Mike praised Josh Ritter’s enthusiasm and performance style, Harry – a philosophy major at Brandeis University - placed a high value on Josh Ritter’s lyrical content stating, “His lyrics are just perfect. He does an amazing job of piecing together stories through his wordplay…I guess you would say his lyrics pull the listener into these stories and help them take on the singer’s perspective. And when you look at all of the historical and literary references he makes, I just can’t help but think, ‘this is a really, really smart guy.’”

Josh Ritter’s fans adore him, and I am no exception, but conversations with Mike, Harry, and other fans point to the inaccessibility of his music to a wider public. While he possesses more charisma than any other performer I have ever seen, on the surface, Josh Ritter’s music appears to be otherwise unimpressive. He possesses an average amount of musical talent, his Idahoan twang could be considered wholly forgettable, and he performs within the confines of a stylistically limiting genre. But my appreciation for his music, like so many of his fans, developed after familiarization with and careful scrutiny of his lyrical content. After identifying his clever word play and endless historical references, it became apparent to me that Josh Ritter is an exceptional songwriter who appeals to and perhaps only deserves above average fans that are capable of identifying such lyrical mastery. That is to say, Josh Ritter’s music does not lend itself to the casual listener, and this artist who wins over fans through seemingly endless on-stage charm has developed a close-knit fan-base that appreciates his music through a more active style of consumption.

After a ninety-minute performance, the Old School Freight Train band joined the band on stage for The Next to the Last True Romantic, and losing his voice, it became clear that Josh Ritter had given everything he had that night. Grins on our faces, Mike, Harry, I left the Somerville Theatre humming to ourselves mingled in with a content crowd that enjoyed all it was promised; a night of entertainment at a rock concert.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Listen the Irony

X-J-9-R-T-5…I delicately typed the code into the keyboard followed by one deliberate depression of the “ENTER” key, and six center stage orchestra tickets were all but mine for the taking. This non-hedge fund/finance related web browsing was clearly inappropriate for work hours, but I had to make sure that I got good seats. So, I purchased the tickets for the Iron & Wine show at 10:02 am – two minutes after they went on sale to the general public – on some time in mid-July. The show was not to be until late September, but foresight in the concert game can certainly pay off. Banking on the fact that friends of mine would be willing to go to the show, I was happy to get the extra tickets to ensure that I could go and sit with a group of close friends.

The months passed by, and I continued to enjoy my leaked version of the Shepard’s Dog – Sam Beam’s latest opus – a seemingly jam band/latino influenced work more reminiscent of his collaborative EP with Calexico rather than his days with 4-Track recorder, a solo acoustic guitar, and his raspy yet soothing voice. I realized however, that the album was not to be officially released until the week of the concert. I thought then that this departure in style might take some easing into by the hands that were so familiar with and adoring of Sam’s earlier work.

September 27th came quickly as the first weeks of school slipped away, and I set off to the Orpheum in Boston with three close friends to meet two other Montana buddies at the concert. Traffic was a breeze, but the directions were not, and Charlie Potter (the driver) and I had to locate the venue by our none-too-keen grasp of Boston’s chaotic downtown area. We got to the concert 45 minutes late, assured by the promise of an awful opening band, but to our surprise, Sam Beam was not on stage, and there was no music coming from the main hall. Instead, the lobby was packed with 20 somethings – many of them bearded – and the concertgoers were conversing (or shouting at each other?) whilst getting drunk. Bad news.

Sam Beam came on stage with his sister and the rest of his 8-piece band ready to entertain the old reserved seating vaudeville theatre.

“The pedal steel is too loud,” I thought, “his vocals too quiet.”

Sound levels were atrociously amiss for the first several songs, and Sam Beam’s lyrics were nothing but a quiet hush as the loudness of his guitar simply pointed to the mediocrity of his playing. “He’s gotten better,” Andy leaned over and whispered to me, and I noticed it was true. Sam Beam’s skills had improved considerably on guitar, as he incorporated a more “bluesy” sound and elaborated on his old basic chord structures.

But the crowd was insatiable and seemed lost before the concert had even started. As the rowdy, stereotypically “Boston”, crowd shouted out songs to play in between every song, Sam seemed to lose the joy in his face and looked like he was just going through the motions on another performance night.

He had worked through most of his new album to gentle applause, and actual shouts of “Freebird” (I wanted to scream!), and it was then that I realized that this audience just did not know Sam’s new stuff. I had taken the album’s leak release date for granted, and should have been aware that the Shepard’s Dog had only been released two days earlier and less tech. savvy, more morally conscious, and more casual fans would have never heard these songs before.

Whether it speaks to Sam Beam’s changing fan base in Boston – I saw him perform two years earlier with Calexico at the Avalon to an ecstatic crowd – the blood alcohol levels of the crowd, or the untimely release of the album, it is hard to say, but ultimately, the concert was overwhelmingly forgettable.

“No worries,” Andy leaned over and said as we left the front doors, “this is just a warm up for J.Ritt next week.” My once, completely Sam Beam crazy friend, the man that turned me on to Iron & Wine, had clearly lost his taste for Sam’s newer sounds. What had happened in process, I wonder to make him so ambivalent? It was the same with my other close friend, Joe, who had lost his love for the Decemberists – unremarkably close to their release of the Crane Wife – despite strong ties to lead singer Colin Meloy (Helena, MT native), and Steffen with Sufjan Stevens as his album Illinois came into the mainstream. I can only worry, that Josh Ritter is the next up and coming “folk” artist to lose his charm and appeal as he enters the limelight.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Concert Tomorrow

Oh right...tomorrow night is the JRitt concert at the Somerville Theatre in Boston, so I'll be sure to report back about soon! Hopefully I can get some good pictures.

i believe that they're the good guys

A little youtube action for yall.

Gathering Sources

I've been thinking of changing the direction of my research project a little bit to examine the transition that artists make as the begin to enjoy more commercial success. Particularly, I want to look at the issue from the perspective of the fan looking at one music subculture, namely the re-emerging folk scene by artists such as Iron & Wine and Josh Ritter. I intend to take a look at their respective segways to more popularity and larger record labels and how fans have perceived this transition paying attention to the notion of "selling out". Conversations with many a number of superfans as well as the following blogs and fansite posting pages as my main data sources:

I think that this project will take an extremely interesting direction and will also let me study some of the more commercial aspects of the folk scene.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Close to a Topic?

I'm finally deciding on a topic for my research...or getting close to one, rather: "Alternative Folk and Country: Iron & Wine and Josh Ritter emend the oral tradition."

It will depend on finding solid ethnographic sources, and I'm sure that the topic might change within the subject matter, but it is a starting point at least. Check back soon!