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.