“If we embrace the unexpected. If we are free not to be slaves to the rhythm. If we have the courage to believe that dreams can and will come true, our ears transform humble songs into music beyond our wildest imaginings” – The Vicar 11 July 2012.
This quote from the enigma that is The Vicar is the best possible introduction for a review of the most paradoxical and amazing album I have heard in years.
Over the years, rock has been an extraordinarily elastic form of music with many variations: punk, alternative, progressive, blues-rock, cabaret rock . . . the various genres continue to multiply. Still, all of these variations share a basic paradigm: the rhythm section. Except for “Eleanor Rigby,” and the occasional acoustic, progressive or a capella track, it’s very difficult for us to imagine rock without bass and drums. The concept defies our fundamental beliefs about what rock is all about. From Bill Haley to The Beatles to even the relatively progressive offerings of Pink Floyd and Radiohead, the core rock rhythm section pretty much remains intact. The rhythm section is what makes rock rock. The Stones wouldn’t be the Stones without Wyman and Watts, and Kurt Cobain was that much better because of Novoselic and Grohl. Rock is about movement, and it’s that tight link between bass and drums that makes us want to jump out of our seats and onto the dance floor or slam into a nearby body.
But what if we could be “free not to be slaves to the rhythm?” What would rock be like without the traditional bass (usually electric) and drums?
Songbook #1 gives us that answer and at first, it’s shocking. There are fourteen tracks on the album and not once is the rhythm driven by bass and drums. During my first screening of the album, I felt adrift and lost with nothing to hang onto. I came very close to abandoning the thought of doing a review because I simply couldn’t get my pretty little head around what was happening. I decided to let it go and move on to something more familiar: power pop.
In the meantime, I found scraps of melodies from Songbook #1 popping up in my head, along with memories of some of the unusual arrangements and panning. I chose to ignore the neurotic internal dialogue that I was wasting my time on something that had crossed the line from progressive to gibberish, pulled out my best set of headphones and gave Songbook #1 another chance.
The shock changed to fascination. I listened again and by the end of the third time through, I was convinced that eliminating the traditional rhythm section was a bold and courageous act that worked. Songbook #1 expands the possibilities of rock arrangement and will hopefully inspire other musicians to experiment with alternatives to tradition.
This is a good thing, because rock has always had a revolutionary component, whether you’re talking about Elvis shaking his hips, the cover and content of Sgt. Pepper or the sheer outrage of Never Mind the Bollocks. Rock is always at its best when it gives a big fuck you to convention . . . even its own conventions.
The fourteen tracks that make up Songbook #1 do have rhythm, but the rhythm on many of the songs is provided primarily by the string instruments you’d find in your typical chamber ensemble: violin, viola, cello, and double bass. However, don’t assume that the strings have simply transformed themselves into 12-bar blues percussion instruments. The closest analogy I can give you is that the rhythm is like watching a film scored by Phillip Glass: the rhythm is unmistakable but it moves to the emotional tension of the moment instead of sticking to a script. Once you get over the feeling of strangeness (caused by our own limitations of how things should be), the rhythmic movement becomes terribly exciting and gives you something to hold onto: a strange and wondrous thing, indeed, but a very solid foundation for the various arrangements.
Once you have your bearings, you can begin to appreciate the complex vocal performances on Songbook #1. At first, they may strike you as weird and ethereal, but once you get over your paradigm paralysis, you’ll realize that a good chunk of the songs could easily be played to a standard beat and arranged as first-class pop songs. That said, I am very thankful that The Vicar chose not to do this, for then they would have sounded quite ordinary and dull. The string-driven rhythms and unexpected positioning of the vocals enhance the beauty of the melody . . . not so “it sounds just like a symphony,” in Chuck Berry’s words, but almost like the melody has escaped the bonds that limited its movement. On Songbook #1, we have an opportunity to experience melody and harmony as we rarely have before, and the experience is thrilling . . . once you let go of your expectations.
The album opens with one of the least accessible of all of the songs (at first blush), “The Girl with the Sunshine in Her Eyes.” Its dreamy opening bursts into vocal splashes and insistent strings that collide and revolve around each other in a breathtaking soundscape that is somewhat jarring when you first hear it. However, as the song moves forward, you find a familiar pattern of verse and chorus underneath the complex vocal and string collage, which in turn allows you to appreciate the essential beauty of the arrangement, which is pure genius. It has grown on me so much that it’s one of my favorite songs on the album, but I would advise the new listener to start with something less dramatic.
“Childhood Days” certainly fits that requirement, a lovely pastoral nostalgia piece supported by a stunning arrangement of flute and strings, but there are better songs further down the track listing. I would avoid the next song, “That Boy’s Not Cool,” until you’re more comfortable with having your expectations shattered; just when you think it’s a hard rocker without the rhythm section, there is a sudden shift to a soft falsetto and then an equally sudden shift to the highly complex arrangement of the chorus, mingling cascading vocals with horns and strings in completely unexpected ways.
The one I would suggest the listener begin with is “The Moony Song,” which establishes its rhythm with the more familiar tool known as the acoustic guitar and leads into a beautifully delivered lead vocal backed by an arrangement of relative stillness. The chorus introduces the strings and harmonies, both breathtakingly beautiful. I have to pause at this point and comment on the excellence of the musicianship throughout Songbook #1, so obvious in both the arrangement and execution and easiest to appreciate in this simply gorgeous piece of music.
“Twenty Two” also opens with acoustic guitar, but quickly introduces music hall piano and reed instruments to back the once again superbly delivered vocals. This is one of those “humble songs” that brims with good humor, accentuated by the sheer novelty in the instrumentation. “Three Sides of Me” is an anthem for the modern neurotic male with a fascinating score that supports the underlying psychology in an almost Hitchockian manner; the vocal performance here is subtly theatrical and very much in character.
One of my absolute favorites is an ode to the weirdness of modern relationships, “Man with a Woman on His Mind,” another good place for the new listener to start. The lyrics are a hoot as the narrator moves his way through a world where his proclaimed heterosexual masculinity is challenged in multiple forms by placing the line, “If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s a man with a woman on his mind” in different contexts. It’s a brilliant piece of songwriting and, once again, the arrangement of piano, horns and reeds is superbly supportive. This is followed by another one of my favorites, “Forever,” a haunting number with an understated arrangement about the search for paradise in this painfully mundane world of ours.
I hate to keep repeating myself, but another favorite is the still quiet of “San Manuel” where the sweetly plucked guitar and restrained vocals accentuate the painfully sad line, “Life just isn’t the same now that we know there’s nowhere to go.” This gem is followed by the more complex and exceptionally well sung, “She Closes Her Eyes” and then by “In Dying Fire,” another triumph of tasteful arrangement and restraint with lasting musical imagery. “Count Your Blessings” is another lush piece with yet another brilliant arrangement that makes perfect use of the double bass. The last two pieces on the album, “Inside My Head” and “Lonely Sunday” are more quirky than the previous pieces, ending Songbook #1 on a lighter note.
Songbook #1 ignores other conventions as well. The identity of the musicians is relatively obscure, as noted in The Vicar’s announcement. Other sources have identified some of the players, most of who are relatively unknown and not “well-known singers from The Vicar’s rolodex.” However, the message is clear: this is not the personality-based music that George Harrison complained about when he said, “You know what irritates me about modern music, it’s all based on ego. Look at a group like U2. Bono and his band are so egocentric—the more you jump around, the bigger your hat is, the more people listen to your music. The only important thing is to sell and make money. It’s nothing to do with talent.”
Songbook #1 has everything to do with talent, everything to do with musicianship and everything to do with artistic integrity. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea and the success of this effort to expand our perspective on what rock and pop music could be is not going to force me to give up my love for artists who create equally important contributions to rock music through more traditional forms. The Vicar has made a brilliant, courageous, convention-defying contribution to the art, and I hope that musicians everywhere use Songbook #1 as an inspiration to break boundaries and explore new possibilities in their own work.