It’s always fun when streams in life start to bleed together.
My church has been journeying through the book of Ecclesiastes for a few weeks now, and one of the key concepts that emerges almost immediately in the book (indeed the first 2 verses) is the Hebrew word hevel.
Most English Bibles translate the word as “meaningless” (the King James calls it “vanity”) but the Hebrew is more literally “vapor” or “breathe”. In this context, “The Teacher” of Ecclesiastes is not so much declaring that everything is “meaningless” in an absolute way, but that it is vapor: ephemeral, passing, impossible to control (if you want to see and hear of the implications of this idea, you can check out our Vimeo E3 Vimeo Feed or our E3 Church Podcast).
Lately, as I get close to my 50s (WHAT!?!?), I’ve been thinking of some of the music and bands of my 20s, when I was a young and growing musician, learning the basics of my craft and discipline. For a good decade plus, I absorbed everything I could in order to reach “the next level” of my musical development, and during that search I ran across a multitude of bands and artists and songwriters and guitar players who, for a relatively brief period of time, were considered masters of their craft (and therefore, worthy of my time and attention).
But guess what: they were vapor.
Even more than than other areas of life, music and art can be truly passing, as tastes change and evolve (listening to almost any music produced in the 1980s can show how much entire sonic palettes can dominate briefly, only to sound almost ridiculous—thanks, cocaine—a mere 5 or 10 years later.
But nonetheless, there were a few bright spots in an often dark age of music. The vast majority of these bands never entered the public consciousness outside of their immediate context; put another way,
If you weren’t there, you wouldn’t know.
I got lucky: I was.
So, since the digital world now makes it easier for us to “grasp the vapor” a bit, I wanted to offer you all just a few sounds from the past—mostly from the 80s and 90s—that you probably wouldn’t know about (but maybe you should).
And now, the introductions:
For sometime in the late 80s, U2 had a record label. This was one of their first signings. Hothouse Flowers were some strange blend of folk, soul, along with some unmistakably Irish leanings. This is the sound of my freshman year in college (at least until the cassette wore out).
Immediately, two thoughts enter my mind regarding The Call: the first is the unfortunate …. of …. (WORSHIP SONG>>>>) FLATTENING …. The second is that it must say something about the quality of your music when a young singer from a pretty popular band agrees to sing backup on one of your singles (this is long before “collaborations” became synonymous with “new ways to make more dollars”). In this case, a young Bono from this upstart band called U2 can be heard singing backup on “What’s Happened to You.” What’s more “The Walls Came Down” features Garth Hudson (from The Band) on keys.
Three things you’d have to know: First, they opened some dates for U2 on The Joshua Tree tour. I saw them on the first of the first of a two night stand in Fort Worth, Texas (On the second night BB King opened the show; that night included the filming of the live footage of “When Love Comes to Town” for Rattle and Hum… it’s all about the stories.)
Second, almost more than any other of these acts, The BoDeans (really just two dudes from Wisconsin whose surname is not “BoDean”) suffered from some of the more unfortunate sonic choices of the era: gated snares, gratituitous reverse reverb, and an overall emphasis on the crystalline high end (again: thanks, cocaine!) at the expense of the guttural visceral mid-range.
Third, in my opinion, this is where some of the more proximate roots of “Americana” can be found: in the late 80s and 90s, various midwestern bands were discovering the beauty of stripped-down production (at least, when their record companies let them have a voice), harmonies, and the beauty of songwriting. In just a few short years, a little band from southern Illinois called Uncle Tupelo would take up the mantle, releasing a few records, and even more importantly eventually breaking up, forcing Jeff Tweedy to start Wilco and Jay Farrar to start Son Volt.
I first read about this Minneapolis band in University of Texas at Arlington school newspaper, when they rolled through the Dallas/Fort Worth, circa 1992/93. This band was similar to the BoDeans (sans the phony last names) with one huge difference: Rick Rubin produced their debut record. In other words, gone were the awful sounding drums and studio tricks, and in their place was the raw and very natural recording sound that Rubin would bring to everyone from The Beastie Boys to Johnny Cash. This was a game-changing record that showed a lot of us how music was going to sound in the very near future. They sung amazing harmonies with each other, and just made honest, heartfelt music.
Around 2001 or 2002, I was listening to a Fresh Air interview with the band, and Teri Gross referred to the band’s 2000 release Smile as “the best record of the year.” It’s just full of one concise, pointed, economical song after another.
Ricki Lee Jones
This is some vapor music from a slightly earlier time (her first record came out in 1979), but I still think that Ricki Lee Jones’ 1981 record Pirates may be the best singer-songwriter record that practically no one under 40 has ever heard. Jones was cinematic and dramatic, but the thing that really hooks me about this (and her first record as well) is the studio band. This is the way music sounds to my ears: real, and immediate, like you sense the guys in the room together. It is organic and coiling, and her voice is weaving in and around the rhythm section, and the moment on “We Belong Together” when what you thought was 6/8 was really a deep swing… I mean…
It still catches my breath 30 years later.
No, you can’t hold the vapor… but boy if you have eyes to see and ears to hear, there are some real special moments that come our way.
If you want to actually hear this stuff, the “Vapor” Playlist can be found at: https://open.spotify.com/user/1219088576/playlist/0dVi7R8lqmEXSIBuxuqRWE