David Karsten Daniel’s 2007 album Sharp Teeth came out of nowhere for me … of course, there are elements of other great folk-inspired contemporary artists, Iron & Wine, Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy and bits of Wilco’s music, but Daniel’s debut on Brighton’s Fat Cat Records was multi-layered folk music with sumptuous strings, horns and great swirling vocal harmonies over the standard acoustic musical arrangements … truly extraordinary! The San Francisco-based artist’s follow-up 2008’s Fear of Flying was also notable, but his latest work I Mean To Live Here Still sees Daniels trying out a new direction, a collaboration with Richmond, Virginia-based 9-piece avant-jazz collective Fight the Big Bull. It’s a fascinating twinning of musical styles, seemingly opposites, matching Daniel’s formal musical training with the experimentation of the jazz ensemble’s at times chaotic and spiraling instrumentation, something akin to what Radiohead did in Kid A recordings like ‘The National Anthem’; plaudits would of course recognize the unmistakable debt to jazz musician and composer Charles Mingus. The overall sound on this album is certainly ‘messy’, with seemingly every kind of instrumentation crammed into the mix (trumpet, clarinet, saxophone, trombones, upright bass, electric guitar, percussion and drums … also odd percussive sounds, there’s a kitchen sink in there somewhere!), but the artists bring together a common musical heritage rooted in North American traditions, and the result is brave and brash, ‘I Mean to Live Here Still’ is a truly big-hearted record.
Perhaps most notably, Daniels took the poems of 19th Century American philosopher Henry David Thoreau as his starting point. ‘All Things Are Current Found’ opens, with Thoreau’s words set to gentle chords and brass, while Daniels picks out a lyrical phrase and really works it into the melody, the long drawn out sustained vocals building to a beautiful mood. It reminds me very much of vocalist Richard Youngs’ recent recordings like Under Stellar Stream, with the technique of vocal repetition and layering used to brilliant effect. The aim seems to be to show that these pieces of music are primal as well as academic, and can engage the listener emotionally as well as mentally.
On another album standout ‘Die and Be Buried’, swirling Miles Davis horn greets the listener to begin with, but quickly develops into a full-blown jazz free-for-all, the cacophony of sound like the material Scott Walker used on his experimental 2006 album The Drift, or the Beatles ‘A Day in the Life’ for brass. ‘Though All The Fates’ takes a more conventional jazz route, ending with a wonderful Dixieland jazz band serenade, fading off into a New Orleans golden sunset. The album was recorded in Virginia in January this year and although extensively mixed, the overall ‘feel’ of the album is still quite chaotic and live-sounding. But it’s Thoreau’s words which remain at the heart of the recording, underpinning the vibrant jazzy sound.
The album is packed with gems, but my personal favourite is ‘The Funeral Bell’, ironically one of the album’s lighter and more upbeat moments, certainly shades of Mercury Rev’s Deserter’s Songs and The Band’s Music from the Big Pink, Daniel’s honeyed vocals sweetening Thoreau’s mournful reflections, although the lyric is worth savouring:
Faint sounds the funeral bell;
A heavenly chime;
Some poet there
Weaves the light-burdened air
Into sweet rhyme.
Clocking in at just 1 minute 13 seconds, ‘October Airs’ is a plaintive little piece, and as if to emphasize it’s brevity, ‘On fields’ continues the same poem but lightens the mood by jazzing the whole thing up and adding kitchen utensil-sounding percussion. The album often turns on this playfulness. I have to admit, I’m unfamiliar with Thoreau’s words, but you have step back in wonder at times … I doubt Daniels was the first to use them in contemporary music and sure not to be the last, but they are very movingly interwoven into the orchestrations on I Mean to Live Here Still:
On fields over which the reaper’s hand has passed
Lit by the harvest moon and autumn sun,
My thoughts like stubble floating in the wind
And of such fineness as October airs,
There after harvest could I glean my life
A richer harvest reaping without toil,
And weaving gorgeous fancies at my will
In subtler webs than finest summer haze.
(from ‘On Fields Over Which the Reaper’s Hand Has Passed’ by Henry David Thoreau)
So David Karsten Daniels and Virginia avant-gardes Fight The Big Bull have produced a brave and beautiful album, marrying the North American folk vernacular with interesting free-jazz textures and atmospheres, the tempo rarely needs to step up a gear, the somber and reflective words of Henry Thoreau suit a gentle stroll in the park and plaintive reflections on life, and I’m sure I Mean to Live Here Still has the old man smiling down from heaven.