My Month In Sound: August 2023
A monthly roundup of discoveries, oddities, songs, and sounds.
The Band // “Acadian Driftwood”
Maybe it’s that photo: five men, staring down the camera’s barrel, unshaven, tough but sly, sepia-tinted, set against a brown the color of attics, or basements. “Authenticity” gets thrown around a lot with the Band, but there’s not much authentic about them: four Canadians playing American R&B with a former Arkansas cotton farmer giving them cover via his twang. But they did their research. In a Time magazine cover story from 1970, guitarist and (controversial) songwriter Robbie Robertson describes aching to leave his Jewish/Mohawk/Canadian roots for the American South: “I wanted to see all those places with those fantastic names. Chattanooga, Tennessee–wow! Shreveport, Lu-zee-ana–wow! All that good music came from there–Robert Johnson, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Junior Parker–and they kept talking about those places in their music.”
Robbie died on August 9th, so I’ve spent the month revisiting a lot of the Band’s music. He describes wanting to “write music that felt like it could’ve been written 50 years ago, tomorrow, yesterday–that had this lost-in-time quality.” And it does. It’s hard to trace the Band’s larger influence on music culture because of this lost-in-time character. Eric Clapton and George Harrison were famously so inspired by them that they opted for their own back-to-basics pivots. Yet the music they created out of those pivots doesn’t have the same Band thing. Some artists have tapped into the Band’s musical funkiness, but not their structural, lyrical, or spiritual funkiness. Their songs are odd and complicated, yet they sound simple and rough-hewn, found by the side of the road or in some Southern swamp.
I was first drawn to the Band in eighth or ninth grade. The Last Waltz was re-released in theaters, and my mother took me (a thousand thanks, Mom). First scene: Rick Danko’s fretless bass locks in with Levon Helm’s funky-ass backbeat on a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Don’t Do It,” their harmonies pleading, yelping, somehow both slick and raw. I was hooked.
Further, deeper obsession in college, when I wrote a paper for a class on the 1960s, showing how at odds the Band were in ’68/’69 as Vietnam, LSD, riots, and assassinations swirled around them. Here was a band that included a photo of their multi-generational families on Danko’s chicken farm inside their debut album. “Most people are knocked out by younger people,” Robbie told Time. “I’m knocked out by older people. Just look at their eyes. Hear them talk. They’re not joking. They’ve seen things you’ll never see.” Yet even as the media portrayed them–as they portrayed themselves–as part of a “back-to-the-land” movement, the Band never seemed reactionary. Their music is in conversation with history, sidestepping most of the zeitgeist but still moving folk, country, rock and roll, and R&B forward. It sounds timeless because it literally is: rooted in the past, but something undeniably new.
What’s most striking to me about the Band’s music, though, is the sense of place. They build worlds with their songs, specific worlds with a cast of characters that feel Shakespearean in their scope and impact. There’s land, physical terrain in these songs, which I feel like is missing from a lot of contemporary music. The song I keep returning to, obsessively, is “Acadian Driftwood,” late period Band when their albums got flabbier and showier. This song taps back into the collective feeling of their early work, thanks to one of the most heart-wrenching lyrics written by Robbie.
“Acadian Driftwood” refers to the 18th century expulsion of the Acadians from Eastern Canada by the British due to the French and Indian War. Thousands died from disease, starvation, or shipwrecks. Many Acadians resettled in Louisiana, eventually becoming “Cajuns.” Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, and Rick Danko trade verses before coming together on the choruses. It gives the account many vantage points of Canadian and Cajun life, cutting across centuries, families, worlds. Maybe consciously, the song ties the Band’s differing backgrounds together in a more complete way than anything else in their discography, right before the members dissolved the group and headed on different journeys.
The song brings the Cajun influences to the forefront, thanks to Byron Berline’s incredible fiddle playing and Garth Hudson’s accordion and bagpipe. Robbie also had incredible instruments to play with in the Band: the voices of Manuel, Helm, and Danko. Listen: the matter-of-fact hurt in Helm’s voice on the stair-stepping “damn”:
They signed a treaty and our homes were taken
Loved ones forsaken, they didn’t give a damn
Manuel’s desperation laying bare:
Sailed out of the Gulf, headed for St. Pierre
Nothing to declare, all we had was gone
Broke down along the coast, what hurt the most
When the people there said, “you better keep movin’ on”
You can learn more about the world, American/Canadian history, politics, immigration, resiliency, and the trauma of war in these six and half minutes than in entire textbooks or news stories. Songs are powerful, powerful things.
Blake Mills // “There Is No Now”
Another timeless song, quite literally. I love songs that sneak in quantum physics and Buddhist conceptions of time into a tidy format. As a producer and guitarist, Blake Mills has quite the resume, but there’s something so casual about this song.
Silicone Prairie // “Cows”
Silicone Prairie’s album My Life On The Silicone Prairie was a revelation for me when it came out in 2021. Weirdo, jangly, synth-fried punk with a Meat Puppets-like take on country music. The Kansas City band is back with Vol. II, baby. “Cows” is another distortion of twang. Cornfields, cattle, the Midwest in a fun house mirror.
Yellow-crowned night heron
Almost every morning for a month, I’d see this mysterious bird on my pre-dawn dog walks: standing stock still in the long grass, grabbing a snake out of our yard, or shadowed on the walking trail. It was hard to get a good look at it for an ID, but from afar, it looked like Edward Gorey’s The Doubtful Guest. Finally, I saw it in a streetlight: a yellow-crowned night heron which, true to its name, only hunts before the sun comes up. I haven’t heard its call, but what I have heard is its silence–the silence of concentration, of evading detection, of being watched. The silence of a wild animal, which is a different, heavier kind of silence.