Friday, December 17, 2010

Besides Daniel

Happy accident. Or divine providence. I stumbled upon the band Besides Daniel while looking at a review of Standing Small’s Asleep At the Oars… on the Blue Indian web site. In a corner of the page was a video of Danny Brewer and Molly Parden performing at a small club in their native Georgia. Intrigued, I looked them up on Youtube and discovered a knockout cover of Big Star’s ”Watch the Sunrise.”

Then I found Besides Daniel (Brewer’s band) and its video for ”The Field.” It rolls through my mind every time I visit the graveyard above my mom’s house in East Tennessee. It convinced me that Brewer is what my wife calls an “old soul.” The ancients know his type.

I’ve listened to every Besides Daniel song my computer can snag from cyberspace. This music moves in every direction while remaining nominally “folk” (and dodging that dull appellation, “Americana”). Every syllable Brewer sings, every note played is worth listening to. Standing Small’s Ryan Fletcher put it best: “From the first couple of notes and the first line of lyrics, Danny draws you in.” I’ll confine my thoughts to just three of Beside Daniel’s lesser known songs – three that are radically diverse in style from one another – to infer just some of the breadth of their work.

“Ignatius” is named for the bishop of Antioch who was carried to Rome in a cage and fed to the lions around 108 A.D. This taut, up-tempo piece combines driving layers of acoustic guitar and dense harmonies in a style that glances early ‘70s British prog. Lyrically, it juxtaposes incisive images from the mundane with the thoughts of the determined martyr: a homeless person looking to sell cigarette butts to a convenience store, a varmint ravaging a garbage can, and a man who has grown too large for his clothes. These elements are swept along by the ardor of Ignatius’ desire to be “ground by the teeth of beasts / made into flour or more / baked into bread for my Love to eat.” The song suggests that the sheer enormity of Christ’s death and resurrection – which the martyr longs to share – infuse meaning into the seemingly random events of everyday life. Among Brewer’s gifts is the ability to report what he sees with clarity, but free of premature judgment. A rare quality, indeed.

“car, duck, train, bird” is a devastating, funereal dirge. The one repeated phrase in the cut-and-paste soundscape is simply:

What were we thinking (of), me and you?
I thought better of love than this

The words merely frame the drama within the sounds: a glib female voice repeating “car, duck, train bird,” a descending, reverberating piano line, distorted accordion, and an overdriven electric guitar. Ringing over the first half of the piece is a Glockenspiel. Halfway through the track the tension reaches its apogee: the female voice and Glockenspiel give way to an electronic bleep. Brewer’s voice becomes manipulated and distorted. It’s an experience akin to not being able to take your eyes off a terrible accident: the spellbinding soundtrack of a relationship destroyed – or of Adam and Eve driven from the Garden.

And finally, “Lake Michigan.” Here, Brewer’s voice and guitar could easily be mistaken for a young David Gilmour, especially when he strkes G major in the refrain. Here, a week before Christmas, a young man is on the run (though not very far) from an abusive guardian, on a drinking and driving binge in an “old orange car….as big as a satellite.”

You wouldn't know it now
If you did, you would blow it down
Yeah, your anger, it would shake the ground
As it is you don't make a sound

Circumstances, including the weather, seem to conspire against him, until finally,

It happened so quickly
You lost control of your car
You lay looking up at the stars
Wondering how far they are
You closed your eyes
You took your last breath...

But this is never quite the end. In Brewer’s reckoning there is a providential love deeper than Lake Michigan:

And now here you are
Here on my front step
Son, welcome home

Grace. No matter where it roams, Besides Daniel’s music is surrounded by a grace that draws you in. So I keep listening...

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