Monday, July 28, 2008

Geosong of the Week: High Country's "The Earthquake"

Even though I've only been playing bluegrass music for a little under a year, I have come to the understanding that it is never a bad idea, when writing a song, to kill off a character within said song, no matter how upbeat the actual music is. It's part of a sort of laughter-and-tears aesthetic that bluegrass shares with a lot of the Celtic music from which many tunes stem: perky fast music, casual wording, depressing substance.

Natural disasters are an obvious way to kill off characters, so I figured I would fire up Google in search of some earthquake bluegrass. And nearly immediately - perhaps because it is the title track of the album in question - High Country's "The Earthquake" turned up.

The lyrics are pretty much what I expected: a happy relationship is destroyed by the house falling on the girl. There is a good sense of the suddenness of the earthquake, though, since the singer keeps talking about how things were, but in the present tense - as if the quake hadn't happened - then juxtaposes the reality of the events against it by inserting a chorus. By the end of the song, the depth and severity of the situation has finally hit the singer, once his beloved has been buried. What I think is the best line of the song comes from this stanza:
"She's lyin' there alone at the mercy of nature, and I've never felt so helpless and small."
To have to put the body down in the earth, when the earth's own "misbehavior" is responsible for her death...that has to be a troublesome feeling. (Though, geek that I am, I couldn't hear this part without thinking to earlier in the verse, where he says she's buried at the foot of the mountain. "No!" I thought, "Don't put her there! Not on the fault scarp! No!")

I also really enjoy the music to this one. I listened to it a bunch of times and couldn't figure out the chords, which was both frustrating and exciting, since this one clearly deviates from the I-IV-V-I progression that's the backbone of so many songs in so many genres. The mystery chord turned out to be a flat III, and its presence made me inordinately happy. The melody that fits over these chords is also incredibly catchy. When I played this song for a friend of mine who happens to be an ethnomusicologist whose Master's thesis was on bluegrass, he immediately said it was a cool song, and I caught him humming it in the hallway a few days later. This song stands up on its own musically, with or without the earthquake factor. Excellent.

Remember last week, how I was saying that people in the mariachi band were threatening to make me sing "La falla de San Andrés"? Well, I still don't know if that's happening, but the bluegrass band I'm in (we're tentatively named Inland Wildfire) is definitely working on "The Earthquake," and yours truly is definitely the one singing it. Terrifying, yes? If we're ever in a position to record it, I most likely will inflict this one on my hapless readers...

But you should listen to the real version first. Here's High Country's Rhapsody page.


Kim said...

I love it.

Have you heard "Wrecking Ball" by Gillian Welch? It's another earthquake song, except that it isn't an earthquake song until the earthquake hits. It captures the unexpectedness, I think.

Thomas said...

Well, I couldn't get Rhapsody to work and realized that it was probably about time that I gave bluegrass another chance (for some reason I LOVE outlaw country and enjoy the hell out of jam bands which incorporate bluegrass elements into their music but never could develop a taste for traditional bluegrass), so I ordered their CD used through Amazon. Great stuff! And then I ended up ordering a second album by them since it was OOP and I wanted to get it cheap...and then found myself ordering a bluegrass starter compilation hoping that digging through one disc once in a while will be less stressful than compiling together a playlist of hours of bluegrass to listen to at any given time through downloading stuff (my traditional method for starting out in any given music genre, though on some of the more...dense ones, it doesn't work so well). What have you started...?

By the way, can you post up the rest of the lyrics to that song? I got it partly figured out, but I'm having trouble with some bits here and there - you probably have more of an ear for this than I do.

Thomas said...

On a semi-related note, it seems I may as well mention the stuff I was talking about enjoying by name:

Yonder Mountain String Band and The String Cheese Incident are both jam bands that are bluegrass oriented, with YMSB being more traditional (more typical bluegrass instrumentation) but differing from traditional bluegrass in the sorts of songs they cover and the orientation of their jam-sessions. SCI...well....I'll let this description of themselves stand: [a] sacrilegious mix of bluegrass, calypso, salsa, Afro-pop, funk, rock, and jazz

Another excellent cross-over jam band is New Monsoon which combines bluegrass and Indian Classical(!). Their banjo players manages to sound amazingly close to playing a sitar at times. They also use tablas and include tabla solos.

Some other bluegrass oriented stuff that isn't quite traditional: Emmylou Harris' Roses in the Snow album. It was meant as a bluegrass album and is probably the closest thing you'll get by a county singer of some fame released in 1980. The songs don't have the traditional lightning-fast orientation of bluegrass, but they are all acoustic (with the exception of an electric guitar solo by a well-known bluegrass guitarist in one song) and try to stick to traditional material as a point. Darol Anger's Republic of Strings is another good one that shifts between bluegrass, blues, jazz, and Celtic folk, among other things.

On a quasi-related note, I've also been digging some really weird/obscure country lately, Those Poor Bastards and Sons of Perdition in particular. In case anyone is interested, check out this for a good start:

Julian said...

Sorry about the delayed response - I've been a bit distracted this week!

Kim: Awesome song! I got around to listening to it yesterday, and I really like both the lyrics and the music. And I agree with you that it gets the unexpectedness really well. Granted, I was wondering when the earthquake reference was going to happen, but I still went WOAH at the end. Thanks so much for pointing me at this song! I love it when people recommend things to me, and I'm also always happy to expand this particular playlist...

Thomas: I am glad to take the blame for pointing people at music that they like! Thank you for all the band recommendations - I'll have to check them out. I am particularly intrigued by the bluegrass/Indian classical matchup! I'm hoping there will be songs from all of these on Rhapsody, since I'm not in a financial situation that accommodates lots of CD purchases right now. (I get a paycheck in November. November! Gah.)
As for the rest of the lyrics to "The Earthquake," well. I can't quite figure out some of them myself. I've come up with some flubbed words that rhyme and vaguely make sense for when the band I'm in plays this, but I'm guessing they're not the actual words. Fortunately, I know someone who knows some of the guys in High Country, so she may be able to ask them what the official version is.

Thomas said...

The wonderful thing about jam bands is that bootlegs abound and they generally don't care =P (thinking of New Monsoon) - that said, if you really need one song to check out by that band, try to find Bridge of the Gods (the version on the Live from Telluride Festival is brilliant). Note that their newer stuff is more rock oriented, based on the Amazon samples I'm hearing (though, as a jam band, they try to do a bit of everything) - perhaps their Telluride set was intentionally more bluegrass oriented than they usually are, I don't know.

I think I'm getting better at deciphering the lyrics to that song - I'll post up what I (think) I have later, maybe together we can work out the lyrics, in case you don't get an official version (and this might be faster).

Thomas said...

I've got it! Mostly.

a question mark indicates that I can't decipher the word(s); word(s) in parentheses followed by a question mark means that I have an idea, but I'm not sure if I got that section right.

Oh, the night has no ?
And it’s dreadfully quiet
I listen but I can’t hear a sound
A moment ago, she sat softly singin’
But our home now has tumbled to the ground

In the light of the full moon, trees were’a bendin’
With the rumble of the hillside givin’ in
The earth shook, ‘till it took down our cabin
Where my darling, she lies buried there within

There’s a red easy-chair, all worn out and ragged
That my sweetheart had covered with her cloak
When earlier tonight she was smilin’ and singin’
how happy was the home our love had built

In the light of the full moon, trees were’a bendin’
With the rumble of the hillside givin’ in
The earth shook, ‘till it took down our cabin
Where my darling, she lies buried there within

Now my dear one is here, with a quilt wrapped around her
But she draws a faint, shallow breath
And I know down in the town at the foot of this mountain
Lies the old oak that’s buried her (grand dad)?

And with the leaves still comin’ down like snow all around me
In the gray night I stumble and fall
She’s lyin’ there alone, at the mercy of nature
And I’ve never felt so helpless and small

In the light of the full moon, trees were’a bendin’
With the rumble of the hillside givin’ in
The earth shook, ‘till it took down our cabin
Where my darling, she lies buried there within

Julian said...

Thomas, it seems like we're confused about exactly the same parts of the song!

I thiiink the first line is, "The night has no tune," but it may also be, "The night has come in."

As for the third verse, I haven't much of a clue, but it didn't sound like oak tree to me. I hear the line as starting with, "Lies the only hope..." and then it gets fuzzy. In rehearsals, I've been singing it as, "Lies the only hope of buryin' her in death," since it fits the rhyme scheme.