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FOOTSTEPS IN WET SAND:
'Land & Sea Chanteys' is somehow different from Bluhm's Mother Hips material. In this way, it's reminiscent of Pete Townshend's solo work, where the narrating voice is the same, but the explorations are far more intimate than The WHO's usual path. Also shared with Townshend is the resistance for using the solo format solely to vent stylistic indulgences for their own sake [though Brian Wilson may argue "You Break Mine Too" against this].
But while Bluhm enjoys the liberty of peppering the songs with different colors [he plays the majority of instruments], he is not playing it safe by sparing himself any lyrical scrutiny either. These chanteys are often starkly honest. With some imagination, one could read the song cycle as a loose story line - though one should be mindful not to assume Bluhm or anyone is the sum of his or her tunes. Still, the conflicting sandscapes of impossible heartache and endless embraces, as told through varying, solitary voices, is the stuff of a potential Californian epic. We’re left to keep the beach fire stoked and to sort vicariously through the wayward postcards.
The album opens with "This Way You Fly." This song is the musical equivalent of waking up suddenly between night & dawn to find the orbiting details of your reality losing to gravity and crashing upon you all at once. The song is not as jarring as that would suggest, but is rather gentle and atmospheric. A distant drum pulse, lush acoustic guitars, a droning Casiotone, and guitar wailing bring the song to intriguing heights.
Comparisons are odious, but a good reference can flatter. In this case, "This Way You Fly" recalls Elliott Smith's melancholic bluntness ["But you're so fucked up / oh, life is tough / and then you think I care" sings Bluhm], and Beck's "Nobody's Fault But My Own" in the best of ways. Again, the sandpaper voice is familiar, but we’re in new territory.
"Harnessmaker's Song", by contrast, is a classic Song#2, where Bluhm throws open the shutters and blazes the listener with morning light. It's a shaggy groove, and a call out to the working class whose shirt sleeves never were unrolled. It's also a lament of sorts over an ex-lover, a recurring theme throughout the album. There's something about the dual singing that evokes images of an old world tavern where stories, songs and gossip clank together with two-fisted beer mugs. It plays like a half-speed sibling to Neil Young’s Come On Baby Let’s Go Downtown.You may find your hands clapping to the tipsy beat.
The third song, "The Temple I Worship You In," leaves the party and heralds the soft, personal mood of "Chanteys" as it quietly whispers in your ear: "I know every bone, every size, every feel / that's wrapped in that beautiful, beautiful skin / It's the temple that I worship you in." Like the other chanteys sung to a woman, there is a weary sigh underlying the romance. She's either too much, too late, or long gone. Bluhm plays every instrument on this \track, which includes percussion and mandolin. This tune is an aching remembrance and the Harnessmaker’s hangover.
"A Song to Play" seems silly at first ["Give me... any old song to play"]. But for anyone washed ashore after a love affair, the empty feelings that have yet to surface in words [or songs] can paralyze. In its somber verses, Bluhm hints at the fine line between intimate experiences & the grist for his songwriting mill ["...some of this I use / and that makes you my muse / bottled up, like a song on a page"]. The upbeat bridges perk up the groove, and Bluhm’s frolicking drum fills act out his palms-up, sheepish shrugs. Finally, he resorts to playful la-la-la’s to resolve this issue that understandably may complicate the very method by which he expresses himself in song.
As a title alone, "Tinkerbell Perfume" is full of possibilities. ‘Tinkerbell’ evokes a fairy tale starlet of a man’s dreams; fragrant ‘perfume’ has the power to entice and excite, but also may linger and haunt. The song offers more thoughts on ephemeral relationships. In the ‘Chanteys’ cycle, it’s a man’s declaration of independence from matters of the heart, once and for all. Whether these romances are strictly occupational hazards for a high profile singer-on-stage, or for anybody for whom it pours when it rains, or for whom the perfect candidate is forever elusive, the weariness comes out again ["I’ve had it up to my guts, I guess / with Tinkerbell Perfume…"]. The lyrics "My darling, my downfall, my friend" to describe her [them] are especially poignant. Those three stages of the same lover could represent the length of three torrid days, three enamored seasons, or three lifetimes. A sharp church organ jaunts through the ¾ guitar strumming, implying maybe a confessional theme.
"The Nelson Touch" features a welcome picking riff and bright chorus to offset the preceding track. Using the Naval Battle of Trafalgar as an historical backdrop, Bluhm parallels that military victory [by Horatio Nelson, that cost him his life soon after] to, seemingly, a romantic enterprise worthy of making a martyr of a man. The deadly cannonballs here are knocks on his door ["…but they’ll never get you in"]. Nathan Pendery’s slide licks notably lift the song at key moments. Perhaps this is the rebound into animpetuous affair that, as a crutch, marks time more than makes love.
Bluhm's voice has never been better-recorded than on "Eucalyptus Wood." The ease of the words as they flow naturally, as if off the top of his head, makes for a wonderful anecdote of a song. "I’m beginning to see that you thought / that I am good for something that I’m not / any boy or girl knows / you build your ship with eucalyptus wood / you’re gonna drown / yeah, your ship is going down." The narrator may be too aware of what he’s built from as well. This song makes the direct connection to the album’s maritime cover art and title. As it rolls to its conclusion, a lonely harmonica and rippling mandolin match the voice singing "If a miracle is what you must believe / believe in the Christ child, it’s Christmas Eve."
The first act of "Chanteys" closes with Bluhm ambling down a lost coastal access road with his thumb raised. The second act begins in a dream. "You Break Mine Too" is the type of song by which many view California from the outside: breaking waves, soothing sun, and pretty girls. The Wurlitzer piano and organ are the shimmer of heat on land’s end. The tambourine is the shuffle of sand on a high tide stroll. The falsetto vocals are something more heavenly, resolving into the sunset ["…to break your heart …to break your heart"]. Bluhm has cooked up a beautiful sounding California pastiche here, which is dashing where many other tracks are more often dashed. Alas, only a dream though dreams often inspire.
"California Way" returns to reality, waking on a stretch of muddy surf, aching and aimless, wondering if it’s all worth it. A weeping slide guitar helps bear this out. The despair even flirts with suicide ["…I swam into the riptide / it beckoned me in and I could not stay away"]. The narrator perhaps wishes to end his human life to merge with the surrounding beauty of "Steinbeck’s Eden." But the same land and ocean that conspired to seduce him now refuse the attempt as vain, misguided, or simply not designed by fate. The classic baptismal scenario here anticipates a spiritual resurgence.
"Some things that come to mind, I find / are cinnamon and sterling silver / obsidian and porcelain / and pearls." Some sentiments call for directness, as is the case with "Girl Crazy." It is the sound of the wanderer reborn, reclaiming his poise and braggadocio at the truckstop jukebox, juiced by the next woman with "almond eyes that hypnotize / and make you lonely / the next night". The soaring chorus echoes the dream of "You Break Mine Too", but this time the scene steps out of the dream, and the road is at long last inviting. The bewitching is on, and the cycle is set again to turn and ultimately inspire.
"Keep You from the End" is not the final track, but it is the album’s climax. Written by Greg Olin, it is a cautioning, forewarning, and a counsel of hopeful tidings. Whether it is sung to the faceless listener, a particular loved one, or the mirror is debatable. Regardless, it resolves the almost Sisyphus-like resignation underlying the previous songs with a simple, spoken phrase ["I know it’s hard / but you gotta try / you gotta try"]. Take these lessons to heart, it’s implied, as if your life and happiness depended solely on the wise words creaking from the rocking chair. Or don’t, despite the heartaches and dangers, and brave the world regardless in the hopes it may spin a memorable, mythical passage for you. Enough at least to warrant a song.
Where the previous song is the closing of the seafarer’s ledger, "Godspeed John Glenn" is the transcendental look to the stars as the credits roll, by which the boat will guide itself ever onward. There are still inner and outer worlds to explore, and the basic sense of discovery compels us to push along. But the questions remain: "If I could ask him to his face / why did he come back again" after visiting space only to find that the "stars are as far away / as they’ve ever been." The only answer is a looping laugh that pans from ear to ear as the synthesizers launch into the fade-out.
Two-time space traveler John Glenn is an appropriate icon for the 2nd excursion of the album into dreamland. Like the narrators of these songs, there is the sense of a man destined to navigate over and across obstacles to the heart and spirit. It nicely wraps up an album that is mostly still searching for a redemptive horizon, and collecting some nerve along the way.
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About the author:
Thanks to Brian for contributing to golden-coast.com.
© Golden-Coast Productions, 1999