Megan Slankard’s new song, “Bones Live Forever”

Megan Slankard is a dramatist and playwright as a songwriter, a creator of characters and a keen listener to, and communicator of, their inner lives. Once again she takes us into the world of a complex character in her new song, the first released from her new album, “Running on Machinery”, the song titled “Bones Live Forever.”

Continuing from, and in a kind of contrast to, the song “The Last Thing You’ll Say” from her previous CD, “A Token of the Wreckage”, there is a mystery in this song; I believe that by the end of it, someone is dead, by drowning.

Happily, Megan’s fans (myself very much included) revel in the richness and complexity of her writing; she emphatically does not write love songs, and the pop gloss, some of the best pop ever made, in my opinion, on the previous CD is understood by fans as only part of who Megan Slankard is musically. This song is chordally spare and decidedly modal, its stripped-downness giving it extra power. The song has melodic and harmonic elements of field-hand work songs and chain-gang songs. Yet there is something else in the soundscape: A howling wall of noise throughout, which seems to me to represent the protagonist’s mental and emotional state during the song. It is reminiscent of the background sound in “The Last Thing You’ll Say”, which was, I think, the sound of the rushing blood in the head of the protagonist. Mere pop doesn’t do this. To the best of my current knowledge, Megan, and only Megan, gets these effects with her songs.

There is so much more to say but I will not yet say it here. The song is part of the new CD and I would want to hear it in the context of the rest of the album before completing my analysis (I am saying it is more forensic analysis than musical analysis, with me searching and researching the lyrics for clues to the plot. Murder or suicide? I don’t know yet!) but that’s the charm of releasing this one first: It is a harbinger of a new hard edge in Ms Slankard’s writing (her performances and the musical excellence of her band are a given) and a perfect inducement to buy the CD, with its included lyric sheet booklet, and to see the CD reveal show at the Great American Music Hall on Saturday, Oct. 18.Running on Machinery

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I stopped listening to commercial national music in 1975

I stopped listening to “radio music” in 1975. I remember the exact moment: I was on the F train in Manhattan on my way home to Brooklyn after a typical day of work. I was standing. Seated across the car was a teenaged girl. Her blonde hair had been “styled.” That’s not a big deal now, of course, but in 1975 it was the first time in many years that I had seen hair on a young person that was not just let to grow long and free. I don’t think I can get across how striking this was, how unusual. The style of this girl’s hair was a replica of the style worn by Farrah Fawcett-Majors, as she was known at the time, on whatever television program she acted in.

This one moment told me that the subculture, the hippie era, or the 60s and the 70s, or whatever we might have called it, was over. If young people, people a generation younger than I (I was in my 20s at the time) were going to accept and emulate commercial culture, to fit into it rather than naturally live an alternative to that culture, that culture was over, because television was too ubiquitous and powerful a tool for promulgating commercial culture. The empire was striking back.

And the music seemed to drop the need for meaning and lyrics and become about dancing.

It was not just that disco sucks (on further lifetime review, it is not that it ‘sucks,” it is that I myself found nothing in it, and I most certainly dance to danceable music now) but that commercial national music sucks, and that what Joni Mitchell called “the star-making machinery behind the popular song” was very good for business, or for a few businesses at least, and wildly harmful to meaning, to quality songs and music, to musicians and to listening audiences whose tastes were being guided by the few people who stood to make large amounts of money and achieve extraordinary fame from that system.

And I no longer heard music that mattered on the radio, not even from the sources I had grown up on, the eclectic Pacifica outlet WBAI and the disc jockeys on WNEW-FM, who played a delicious mix of songs, some folk from local performers like Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk, and related material like “Mr. Bojangles” from Jerry Jeff Walker, to experimental guitar jazz fusion by Jon McLaughlin and  Carlos Santana, and so much more. And the disc jockeys would announce the songs and say who played on the recordings and talk about the meaning of the songs and about the performers, and it was about the music.

Those radio sources either ceased to exist or they changed as radio changed and became much more a route to revenue for the “music industry” and less about the meaning of the music. The way people listened changed.

And I stopped listening at all. I moved to Southern California and bought two records, Neil Young’s “Harvest” and Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” and stripped the grooves, and I listened to the remnants of the kind of music that mattered to me, like Paul Simon’s “American Tune,” and I watched a rock concert show late Saturday nights after “Saturday Night Live” and saw and heard music I liked, but I saw Rod Stewart in lipstick and face powder singing disco and I was appalled. When I moved to Northern California a year later, I had stopped listening to any of it.

With very rare exception I do not hear the national music. The list of things I’ve never heard is ridiculous, especially since my own music is compared to artists that everyone but me knows. I have never heard an album by Tom Waits or Billy Joel, for instance, let alone rock bands from the eighties on.

When I came into contact with the local music community in Marin and then in San Francisco, I heard songs at open mics and local performances that moved me the way the music of the 60s and 70s had moved me when they were current. So I began to do what I had always done with that music, studied the lyrics, studied the music, delved into it with the same fervor that everyone I knew back in the day normally and regularly applied to the music we grew up with.

That’s what I’m doing now. In addition, I am meeting and getting to know the people who write, perform and produce that music, and I cannot adequately get across how satisfying that is to me. I am actively advocating for an atmosphere in which my own songs, my own music, can be heard and taken as seriously as I take other’s music, as seriously as all the humans I grew up with took their music back then.

I hear Roem Baur’s “No More Sunsets” and am not satisfied just to hear it; I had to cover it on a “Cover Your Friends” night at the open mic. I hear Megan Slankard’s CD “A Token of the Wreckage” and I am wearing out the bits from the laser disc of that incredible opus that I have reviewed previously, and I’ve covered Eric Andersen’s “Blue Green,” and I am blown clean away by The Kilbanes’ “Awake” and cannot stop singing it, and Thunderegg’s “Not What I Meant” and Jeff Campbell’s “Fourth Street” and Bill Fried’s “I’m Sorry” and Dennis Haneda’s “My Disease” and The Sad Truth’s “(I’ve Never Been To) Texas” and Gentry Bronson’s “Beautiful Ghost,” which I have covered as well, and Brad Brooks’ “Night Fades” and Bobby Jo Valentine’s “Chase Away My Dark” and Dan Moses’ “Sailors Gone” and Jesse Brewster’s “Sorry Ain’t Enough” and Jimmy James Page’s “Maybe I Don’t Love You Any More” and Bobby Dunne’s “The Water’s Gonna Rise” and Susan Zelinsky’s “Walking on the Ceiling” and Ben Hulan’s “You” and Donovan Plant’s “San Francisco” and Jeff Desira’s “When I Let Go.” And Scott Mickelson and Fat Opie’s masterpiece album, “Victoryville.” And all the rest of the songs from our community that I know, adore, respect, admire and love.

And I am actively advocating for culture change around music, by which highfaluting phrase I mean that I am asking people to recognize the possibility that their “local” music, wherever they are, is better than what they are being fed nationally, and that it is because the national music has commerce as its goal and only infrequently promotes quality rather than dictating what people ought to experience as quality, while music made by the humans where we live, wherever we live, is much more likely to be about meaning and quality than about big-dollar commerce.

What do we want from our music-listening experience? I just suggest we ask the question and examine our unconscious response to what we have been force-fed, that we actively choose “local” music not because it’s a good economic or political idea, but because it is, in fact, better music.

The Novelists, with a focus on the songwriting of Megan Slankard and Eric H. Andersen

For a long time, I have done most of my writing about music as comments on other people’s posts on Facebook and ReverbNation and SoundCloud and the like. When I have posted on my own timeline or on my music page timeline, most of my posts have been to promote the shows of the extraordinary musicians I’ve come to know in the Bay Area. Sometimes, I promote shows on my timeline or write short reviews of performances and recordings as comments on posts from people I have not yet met, simply because I have been moved or impressed by something I have heard or seen.

I want to write about the musicians and music I am hearing that I feel are the very best. This aggregation, as it appears over time, will by no means be exhaustive; there are other musicians and pieces that I like very much. What comes to mind for me today is The Novelists.

I have just become a member of The Novelists’ Book Club (http://thenovelists.com) and heard for the first time the new songs that the group has co-written. I had extremely high hopes for this collaboration, and, impossibly, my best hopes have been exceeded. The first song they posted was co-written by Megan Slankard and Eric H. Andersen, and if either of them had asked me for my opinion of what they should do next in songwriting, I would have recommended that they co-write because their writing styles complement each other so well. And here they are, with a song called “I’m In No Pain,” and it is everything I would have hoped their collaboration would be, and much more. I will wait until their next CD is released before I consider reviewing this song in detail.

From my personal point of view, Megan Slankard (http://www.meganslankard.com) is currently America’s best songwriter. I know of no one who can write anywhere near as incisively as she can, about as wide a range of subjects, with as much of what I call psychological veracity (meaning communicating the way humans actually think and feel) as Megan has done, especially on her momentous album “A Token of the Wreckage.” “Token” is a collection of connected songs, and though it isn’t a rock opera, it functions as a song cycle about a particular set of subjects, and as such, I think it rivals (and I actually believe, exceeds, at least at the level of the heart) such works as The Who’s “Tommy” or “Quadraphenia.” I call it singer-songwriter/pop fusion, because the incredibly deep, creative and carefully-crafted songs on that CD are all also pop masterpieces musically, with melody and chordal hooks aplenty. No matter how many times I listen to the songs on “Token,” there is enough in it to keep me delving, there is that much substance to the work.

If you want to know about Eric Andersen, I call your attention to his song “Blue Green,” which appears on his own CD (“Close to Home,” http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/ericandersen12) as well as The Novelists’ most recent release, “Backstory” (http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/thenovelists.) It is an obvious national hit, so finely crafted, so stripped down, so exquisite and gemlike. Every line is its own hook, both musically and lyrically. The song got some attention, as did The Novelists’ CD, in year-end “ten best” lists, but I predict a much bigger future for Eric and his songs. He is obviously musically knowledgeable as well as gifted, as the “making of” video for “I’m In No Pain” shows him conducting the string section for the recording of the song, and I note that he and Joel Ackerson are credited with the string arrangement, and that arrangement is stunning.

The other members of The Novelists, Joel Ackerson and Zachary Teran, are also remarkable songwriters and I will talk about them in the future. It is uncanny that these four people met and formed a band. It is apparently not enough that they write at the exalted level at which they write; they are all expert musicians on their instruments, they all have superior singing voices that just happen to blend perfectly, they play the right instruments to be a band rather than just four singer/songwriters, and they all work extremely hard at their craft.I will write more about them when their next CD is completed.

I intend to do all I can to help along what I think is inevitable: This group is going to be important nationally, because they are so important musically and so wildly impressive. I am rooting so hard for the substance of what they do to catch on with the public at large, because it would restore my faith in the audience. I know younger people are saying to me and others that they crave more complexity in the lyrics and the music of what they listen to, and I am hoping that The Novelists are at the forefront of meeting that craving.

Fat Opie CD Release Party 10/6/2012

Here is a capsule review of the CD release party for Fat Opie’s “Victoryville,” which took place at Amnesia in San Francisco. Mana Maddy and her band opened the show and I was intrigued by her original music, which I hope to review elsewhere, followed by Kofy Brown and her band, whose energy and raw power rocked the house. But I came to talk about Fat Opie (Scott Mickelson: songwriter, vocals, electric and acoustic guitar, electric banjo. Robin Hildebrant: bass, backup vocals. Dave Tavel: drums. Reem Regina Tatar did backup vocals throughout, and Christian L. Behrens, trombonist with Roem Baur’s band, played with the band on a new song called “Flickering.”)

This show was one of the highlights of the year for our music community. It is one thing that “Victoryville” is as important an album as it is, setting new directions for what is called “Americana,” but really for all popular music, and it is quite another that the performance of these songs was as burningly alive as it was! There were two marker moments: First, the song “Victoryville” seemed to have all the deep passion and energy that Scott MIckelson and the band had in them, augmented by the strong and palpably connected contributions of foundational music community members Tom Rhodes and Alex Jimenez, in their playing and in their backup harmony vocals, which were chill-down-the-spine-inducing, especially at the end of the song. And second, there was Jay Trainer’s incendiary, from-the-bottom-of-the-heart solo on “Monster In The Room” that melted the walls of the club and pressed the point that Jay had superior music to inspire his supercharged playing. This is clearly Fat Opie’s time, musical moments nineteen years in the making, and with this as the current result, worth every nanosecond of that time!

Weightless, a rock opera, at SF Fringe Festival, EXIT Theater, 09/06/2012

Let us begin at the end: The opening night performance of the rock opera Weightless netted a standing ovation for its six performers and its creators, and it merited every cheer and every moment of applause.

The individual components of this bravura presentation, the performers, the music and the story, all operated at the highest levels of excellence.

The performers: Kate Kilbane and Dan Moses are superior musicians, and as a duo and as a gigging band with drummer Dan Harris, they are a crack outfit, precise, polished and perfect. Last night they were all this and more. Kilbane was at her very best on bass, with a deft, sure, nuanced touch and her amazing ability to sing complex melody and harmony lines over complex, often syncopated bass parts. Her singing is the singular strongest element of the performance of the piece, a unique voice that carries and lifts all the drama and emotion. Moses, clearly the musical director, used a variety of sounds on his keyboard to great effect, playing almost minimalist, gemlike fills and underpinnings with dynamics ranging from soft single sounds to rousing crescendos, while singing gorgeous harmony lines, gorgeously. The subtleties of Harris’s work on drums, seemingly-effortless, exact, focused and intensely creative, is a major factor in putting the music across. As an ensemble, this group is fine-tuned and supremely well-rehearsed.

The musicians who augmented the band are revelations. Lily Holbrook’s singing style is unique, powerful and perfectly balanced with Kate’s voice such that the two women truly sound like sisters and the relationship between them is palpable in their songs together. Holbrook fully inhabits her role with her voice, all her power and her vulnerability. It takes a formidable vocal presence to hang with Kate Kilbane, and Lily Holbrook is that presence; in Dan Moses’ words from the stage, she is “Lily Fucking Holbrook” and the audience fell in love with her. Josh Pollock, the male lead, has an arrestingly good speaking voice and his own presence and skill as a singer. It is his acting that shines here, his portrayal of a complex and real character, the antagonist, and his exchanges with the female leads, in speech and in song, are electrifying. And he can shred on electric guitar at the exalted level at which Kilbane and Moses perform. Narrator/chorus Alisha Ehrlich was flawless in her ability to be the main conveyor the plot without calling attention to herself, a high skill.

The music: There was not a musical moment in this piece that was anything less than perfectly conceived, intricately planned, wildly creative and effective. The musical style of the show can be described as jazz-inflected rock and pop and is remarkable in its accessible complexity, with more musical hooks and memorable choruses than one might expect in multi-song music that has the purpose of telling a unified story. The music itself moves, dances and excites, supporting the songs and their meaning with overwhelming compositional skill and a musical sensibility that pull the listener in and hold the audience throughout. The individual songs stand surprisingly well on their own; when this score is released as an album there are people who will wear it out until the laser melts the disk, just for the music.

The story: This audience was moved; it was the theater aspect of Weightless that won their hearts. Taken from Greek mythology, the bare story of sisters, a king and the intrusion of fate in the intrusive form of “the gods” is expectedly archetypal and revelatory about the human heart and the human condition and is satisfying in its own right. The magic here is that the drama and its heart are brought into high relief in song, in these songs, which, in the mouths and voices of these actors, take on nuance that makes these characters real, show us their insides as the action plays out. The intelligence of the lyrics of the songs and their intense, evocative poetry cause the piece to transcend the merely philosophical, the merely tragic, the merely moral, and they went to the core of this listener, who was caught up personally in the story and in the reality of the characters and their internal plight. The songs work as theatrical pieces and the songs work as songs; there is no sacrifice of one to the other.

The key strength of Weightless is the way in which its elements, each expert in itself, come together as musical theater, rock opera that truly affects the human heart.

“A Token of the Wreckage,” by Megan Slankard. Review by Alan Monasch

Please hear this: Megan Slankard’s CD “A Token of the Wreckage,” is a most significant musical work. On the basis of this premier CD, I have become Megan Slankard’s fan for life. The title song alone had done that, but it’s only the beginning of the wonders of this album. Throughout, she expresses her performer/writer/artist soul in the now-quickening, now slowing cadences of modern songwriting, using even pop gloss as a tool to get her substantial, complex, oddly beautiful artistic vision across, in ways that make me want to listen again and again to catch every nuance of language and melody.

If you are looking for a review that says that Megan is a fantastic performer and that she makes really good pop music, well, that’s certainly extremely true. But please look under the hood with me:

Careful reading of these beautiful and often unexpected lyrics is almost mandatory to get the full effect and benefit of Slankard’s artless-seeming art. Yet In tune after memorable and accessible and hooky yet deep and complex tune, Megan delights with unexpected musical changes and startling turns of phrase. “Token” and songs like “Fair Enough and Farewell,” (“I’m such a little girl”) “Our Little Secret,” “Soundtrack” (“You’re like a movie directed by me”), “Beautiful Makeshift” (where a jazzy feel to start gives way to buttery pop, but with incisive and almost angry lines like “Not that I am one for your destruction,” which seems to me to be pure Megan and only Megan) and “The Last Thing You Say” (with its modern propulsive shaker beat and pulse changes) show that good, poppy pop rock is a perfectly useful tool for presenting music of substance.

There is real substance here. It took me a long time to get to the bottom of it, and please bear with me as I back into it. The third-to-last song on the CD is “The Last Thing You Say,” and I cried the entire morning after listening to it and reading the lyrics really closely. The singer of that song is lying in a pool of blood on the (kitchen) floor after being stabbed by her lover, and she is about to die. Her sight is dimming and she is listening, as the pounding of her own heart and blood (which you can hear in the percussion) make it hard for her to hear the last words he will say, as she says, and she is listening hard in case they are about her. She says that anything he does at this point will make her happy, and that she has loved him without thinking. And this is all rendered in hooky, delicious pop colors! When I grasped what the song was saying, when I realized that loss of life was an horrible possible outcome of loving for the character who sings these songs, I looked back at all the other songs that preceded this one and saw them in a new light, a new darkness, actually.

It is the culmination of the themes on the album, and it is very much an album, with songs that connect with each other and have their strongest effect when played in order. The main thrust seems to me to be that an intensely wise young person who knows even her own paucity of experience in the world is bridling at the loss of selfhood that love can seem to demand, the deadness and boredom that conventional adult life can be, and the fact that marriage and other markers of growing bring us one step closer to the end of our lives.

Though the album  is predominantly about relationships and the young individual in relationships, the word “love” appears very infrequently, and some of those times it appears very darkly indeed. “The Last Thing You Say” starts “So love is this: A three-inch blade,” for instance.

Youth is mentioned repeatedly; an irony for me is that Megan Slankard may be young but her wisdom and insight, even and maybe especially when acknowledging her own confusion or age-appropriate lack of experience in the world, is remarkable. It is here that I would like to speak about the wreckage in the title of the CD; it seems to me the wreckage is the possible destructiveness of a relationship a young person enters in hope of it being lifelong, only to find that it isn’t a relationship that sustains the partners for long at all, something that actually hurts them. In these songs Megan, as protagonist and first-person singer, is wise enough to know that she, and maybe her partner, are perhaps not ready to settle, either down or for less than a satisfying future.

“The Pain Of Growing Up” is in almost same beat as the song before it on the CD, “The Happy Birthday,” but in urban and minor tonalities. I think it’s a key song, at the half-way point, the beginning of the second half. Here the singer confronts the realities that delimit the exuberance of youth. She and her lover, with whom she is kind of playing house though they don’t live together (“I love the thought of us, so young and mischievous, but oh so domesticated,” where “oh so domesticated” is not really domesticated at all) have to face the fact that they have big dreams, small money and will have to become more domesticated, perhaps, in order to have adult lives. And it’s not clear that an adult life is what they want if it means most of the deadening things that adult life has come to mean. In the end, the pain of growing up may be the pain of adult awareness about the many deadnesses.

“The Tragic Life Of Caleb” is the best of country singer/songwriter acoustic fingerpicker music, but with an edge and personalness not common in country tunes, and its lyrics strike deep. The song is about the singer having called off her wedding to a man because “I’m scared of being bored with you.” The singer is aware enough of her own confusion to be apologetic, but she notes that her lover is mean and she would like to see him “choke and fight to breathe.” Yet the chorus, “When I die Caleb, what happens to the air I breathe? What happens to my hopes? What will happen to my dreams?” seem more about the death of selfhood the singer might suffer by marrying than about her physical death. But it’s clearly a life-or-death matter to her. We can clearly see how this is related to the murder in “The Last Thing You Say.”

I could go on like this through each song, and I may do so in a continuation of this review, but there is something clear and brilliant here. It is Megan Slankard’s sure-handed presentation of major, major themes as the best drama, the best of the playwright’s craft, here rendered in song after arresting song.

I want very much to mention that the production is highly polished throughout, and that the musicians and the arrangements and the musical underpinnings of the lyrics are simply superb. It’s clear the musicians and the producers and engineers understood Megan’s vision. I could single out James DePrato’s stellar guitar work on the title song ( a song so important to me that I will write an entire review of it separately), but the ensemble as a whole, the beauty of all the music by Danny Blau on guitars and keyboards (I assume it is he who plays the keyboard in the video, and he is a player after my own heart), Jeff Symonds on bass and Kyle Caprista on drums, unifies the album and provides such great underlying strength to the proceedings.

From the cover art with the doll doubtlessly representing the singer being rowed either away from a wreck at sea or across the River Styx by the Ogre Boatman, to the included video (an incredible work in itself, another, different, drama) of the title song, this CD is a huge achievement for Ms Slankard and would be for any writer and performer. Individually, these songs will parse as the obvious hits that they are. Taken together they are an extraordinary document, the work of a budding genius.  To Megan Slankard I offer this review as a token of my esteem for this ubertalented true artist who has so much to tell me, at so many years older than she, about her experience and understanding as an awake and aware young person with a unique perspective about self and relationships.

I know I haven’t gotten it all, haven’t done this work justice. I’m still digging through. There is more to say about how “I’m not going to let you win” and “you’re not going to win” appear in different songs, about how getting the noise to stop in the last song cycles back to getting the noise to stop in the first song, about “Show Up” and the singer taking charge at the end of the CD but I can’t write any more about this album I’ve lived inside for the last two weeks or so. I’m too busy listening again.

I have said that if you only take one CD recommendation from me this year, please let it be this recommendation, this CD. It will pay you back so repeatedly and so strongly.