Saturday, January 3, 2015

Tony Dekker - Prayer of the Woods (2013)

While I listen to all kinds of music, at any given point in my life there is usually one genre I most gravitate to. Over the past year, I've gravitated to music I call roots music. I made up the name because the music/sound I'm interested in doesn't usually match a single genre; it seems to drift amid the blurred borders of blues, folk, country, bluegrass, and rock. It's largely acoustic music, with a streak of Americana in the lyrics or the musical approach. Listening to roots music is likely one reason I started taking guitar lessons this past year. As I began writing songs, I searched for music that fit into my made-up genre, as it is the kind of music I would like to write.

Tony Dekker's solo album Prayer of the Woods is one of the albums I've stumbled across in seeking out such artists (meaning I'm unfamiliar with the work of his band Great Lake Swimmers). Prayer of the Woods is totally roots music: quiet, melodic, and deeply imagistic songs performed with basic instruments played and arranged with great skill. The lyrics are very poetic, and brimming with emotion without getting maudlin or overdramatizing them in a 'tears in my beer' way.

In both lyrics and music, Dekker conveys emotional states quite effectively even though it's not usually clear what his songs are about specifically. Even on tracks that resolve easily into states of mind or portraits ("On My Way Back", "Final Song"), one feels Dekker drawing a curtain between the listener and himself. It's as if the truth or meaning of his song is always sitting just outside one's field of vision. Many artists who write this way leave me cold, but Dekker's writing, performing, and sound are so consistently evocative that one doesn't mind being mesmerized rather than being directly told a story or drawn a portrait of someone. 

His songs on the latter half of the album are the least concrete. Yet even there (and really throughout the entire album) there are enough clear anchors for the listener - in terms of locale and emotion - to make each song resonate as if you fully get it. For me, many of the songs feel like they take place in late winter or fall and in the woods or rustic landscapes (certainly not in a big town or city), which the title of the album would seem to confirm. Emotionally, a sense of recent loss pervades the lyrics and is sharpened through Dekker's soft guitar playing and gently toned - but clipped - vocals. Even when he's weaving a picture, as on "Under a Magician's Sky", there's a terseness to the delivery that prevents the album from becoming dreamy or abstract. You always know there is something concrete behind that curtain he's pulled down.

Every one of Dekker's songs works with great melody, and his two covers fit into the feel of the album so well that you might not suspect they were written by someone else. Only the difference between Gordon Lightfoot's sense of melody and Dekker's marks the final track ("Carefree Highway") as definitely by another writer. However, the most intriguing bit of composition is the title track, which Dekker apparently wrote around a poem by an anonymous source. It's almost as if in this litany of how wood from forests permeate our lives that Dekker is also drawing together the emotional content in the rest of the songs. Not only do we draw materials from the woods, but some of our deepest memories and experiences can be come from there as well. The prayer "harm me not" could then apply equally to treatment of the forest and to how we hope to interact with others and they with us.

Prayer of the Woods is a beautiful album, but despite this it is also one that comes across as basic as burlap or bark. The consistent, yet nuanced, style all the way through makes for a terrific complete listen. Highly recommended.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Another Point in the Orbit

I'm not much of a believer in New Year's Resolutions or for celebrating the New Year in general. While I certainly don't mind a party, I see little reason to designate a random spot in Earth's orbit as an especial time for new beginnings, of a year, or anything else. While the calendar seems to provide some justification for viewing January 1st as the start of a new year, the fact is that any point on the calendar is the first time we reach that day in a year's time and, hence, any and every day of the year may rightly be designated as New Year's Day. I've found that eliminating the concept of a new year is a very positive thing to do.

I may have been led to question the logic of New Year's Day as a result of Zen Buddhism's emphasis on being in the moment without deluding ourselves about that moment. Whatever the genesis of my turning away from the concept of a new year, not having one emphasizes that we can start over at any time. It allows for small changes during the course of a year that can roll-up into great change and progress over time. Most of us, in fact, engage in this behavior, but I'm not sure we always realize it, but it's important to take time to realize it and celebrate it. I like to think of this as the 'Another Point In The Orbit' celebration.

Here's how you do it. Whatever day it is, look back over the 365 prior days and identify your big accomplishments or experiences and put them on a rough timeline based on when they occurred or when you started them or when you hit an important related milestone. As you lay them out, think of (or discover) something about each event that was a new experience, a challenge to yourself, a major life lesson learned, an example of solving a problem, or simply a case of taking charge of life in some manner. Here's mine as an example:

  • January - Wanting to be more active in supporting causes I believe in, I initiated my first annual Charity Shopping Spree. I calculated what percentage of my income I could afford to set aside for charities on an annual basis and then...went shopping! It's a morale boost knowing I'm doing something to support good work. And, best of all, the annual nature of the Spree means I will support causes I care about on a consistent basis. 
  • April - Vacation in St. John, Virgin Islands. Amid the usual snorkeling, sunning, deep sea fishing, sunsets and stargazing, we did something pretty unusual Although we're not hikers, we undertook a fairly long hike into the rocky terrain on the south side of the island. One of the few hikes I've ever done in my life. Beautiful views!
  • May - Officiated the marriage of two good friends: Stacy and Greg. I had to write the speech and vows that an officiator delivers and make sure they were unique but also made the day special for the couple. Totally outside-the-box experience and something I'll never forget!
  • June - After taking stock of my career, I initiated a lot of healthy (and overdue) change. Sometimes, no matter what I bring to the table or how much I can help, some problems are not mine to solve (and perhaps cannot be solved).
  • July - Sick and tired of not being creative, I stopped griping about it and did something to galvanize me into change: I signed up for guitar lessons. Since then, I've been practicing almost every day, started writing my own songs, and am even teaching myself to sing. Playing guitar is neither writing nor art - the two creative pursuits I've leaned on for decades - but by trying something different, my creative life is thriving for the first time years.
  • August - Recognizing that I hadn't been reading much, I subscribed to sixteen magazines selected to reengage me with topics that I love (or want to love). To name a few: planetary science, world events, contemporary writers, art, and whimsically...whiskey! I'm indulging in my love of reading again, and I'm learning so much.
  • September - With my weekly schedule not allowing for trips to the gym, I hadn't worked out for months. I did a lot of research and developed a new workout which I could do at home. Two sets of dumbbells, push-up bars, 20-25 minutes, and the willingness to rise early is all I needed to get back on the horse again.
  • December - As an extension the new work-out, I wanted to do serious cardiovascular exercise now that I'm getting older. Martial arts was too great a commitment, biking was out during snow and rain so I landed on...running! Never done it before, and I was a very worried I'd wimp out. Despite a first run in cold weather that was difficult, painful, and thoroughly demoralizing, I pushed through and just completed my fourth run. I plan keep to training with the goal of doing my first 5K in spring or summer.

As you can see, the 'Another Point in the Orbit' celebration - aside from celebrating what we have accomplished - shows that we don't need New Year's Resolutions or to designate an arbitrary day as a time for new beginnings. Every day - every point in the orbit - can be a new beginning.