Gently rising with the Brightblack Morning Light
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t even think about typing the two words I’m about to type, because in a perfect world we wouldn’t need to manipulate our ill-suited, incomplete words in order to try to describe our aesthetic experiences. We’d just have aesthetic experiences, and we’d all know what was going on with everything, all the time, and not have to talk about it.
But we are way post-Eden, so I gotta: “freak folk.”
I know. I’m sorry. Meaningless words. I promise not to repeat them. But inaccurate as those words are (cf, grunge, alternative, emo, stoner rock, crunk, new wave, ska, ad infinitum), there’s a cluster of images, sounds, ideas and people associated with them, for better or worse. Taxonomically, most of them are useless: beards. Weird vocals. Psychedelia. Trees.
“Predictably, a throwaway characterization of a select few has become a nebulous catchphrase to describe any folk artist to the musical left of David Gray,” said Dave Snyder, who runs the blog Indie Folk Forever, via e-mail. “It’s not all negative; the fact that it’s perceived as a movement has generated lots of press for fantastic musicians. But it may become a liability. And you won’t find any artists co-opting the tag—at least not any worth hearing.”
Indeed, nobody wants much to do with the words—they just seem too trite and silly—which have somehow ended up in the center of the orbit of artists like Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Vetiver, and Six Organs of Admittance, to name a scant and arbitrary few.
Some of the people caught in this orbit—and yet, utterly on their own path—are Brightblack Morning Light, whose most recent album is a self-titled release on Matador Records. To call them “Matador Records recording artists” would be like saying J.D. Salinger is a “Little, Brown and Company author.” The individuals who play in BBML, Nathan Shineywater and Rachael Hughes, are staunchly peripatetic and musically beholden to neither ideology nor “scene.”
The first song on Brightblack Morning Light’s self-titled album, “Everybody Daylight,” sets the tone for what at times feels like one endless piece of music rather than 10 tracks: Hughes’ smooth, tender Rhodes piano announces itself with three chords while Shineywater’s electric guitar slides comfortably behind. One feels electricity being husbanded gently throughout this recording, almost respected, in the sense that no instrument seems to have been given more power than necessary, nor have volume knobs been turned up higher than anything that might, as Wendell Berry wrote, “disturb the sleep / of a woman near to giving birth.”
The drummer on the record, known in the liner notes only as “Magic Andy,” supplies persistent sixteenth notes on the hi-hat, but no snare backbeat. Instead, the sound of hands clapping, along with snatches of congas and claves provide percussion. Vocals are present most of the time, but act more like another instrument than anything else, and it’s often impossible to distinguish the several voices from each other. The result is something like an aural blancmange, a sweet, soulful, musical goo.
Most of the record sounds like this: whisper-quiet but always moving forward, glacially at times, but purposefully. It’s maybe best listened to outdoors while one drifts off to, or wakes from, sleep in the grass.
Much has been made of that fact that BBLM and other bands with whom they’re often lumped have created their remarkable sounds in Northern California (or the more mythopoetical “rural Northern California,” perhaps most revered by those who haven’t set sandal in it), as if there’s something in the water here. But those people probably have it wrong, even though there are some lovely trees, fields and bodies of water here, because really, BBML makes music that is from nowhere, or everywhere, and reaches imperceptibly toward Eden.