Friday, 22 July 2011

MUSIC: Early Day Miners - one of America's greatest unknown bands

For almost a decade, Daniel Burton has led Early Day Miners, who still feel like one of the best kept secrets in contemporary American independent music. To say that Burton approaches songwriting like a Great American Novelist is not to say that, like Lou Reed, he has a large cast of sleazy but cartoonish characters, as his way of keeping it real. No, Burton melds landscape and history in a way that can only be compared to William Faulkner or Cormac MacCarthy. In fact, the Offshore from 2006 was a personal album of the year, joint with Ys by Joanna Newsom, but impossible to choose between because it seemed like its darker, masculine counterpart – an elegy in the midst of destruction.

So why haven’t you heard of them? Ultimately, Early Day Miners may take a long time to gain the recognition they deserve – their determination and integrity is pure punk-rock, but the sound and songs may not be so palatable to indie-fans who assume that integrity = trashiness. Think Bedhead without the irony… but Codeine without the depressive inertia; Dave Pajo (of Slint and Papa M) playing as all his different incarnations, at the same time; Talk Talk (circa Spirit of Eden, and Laughing Stock), if the playing had the heaviness and precision of US-hardcore. Then again, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to mention the decidedly unhip ‘Brothers in Arms’ (the song) by Dire Straits, or 1990s Peter Gabriel without the schmaltziness of the lyrics – literally, the core of each, beneath the “blues” and “world-music” signifiers. So, let’s just say this is the one independent band who won’t compromise by not sounding accomplished…

Way back when, Burton was apprenticed to Daniel Lanois, probably best known to DiS-readers as the producer who ensured that U2’s mid-80s left-turn into Americana would result in some actual classics (The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree), rather than excruciating pastiche. Burton could have had a career making Grammy-winning platinum albums, but instead kept his skills for the underground, and cult indie bands, including Okkervil River and Songs:Ohia; effectively, making him one of the most important people on the other side of the glass since Steve Albini.

Placer Found (2000)

“moving north through the snow / to the destination / but still a-ways to go…” (‘Placer Found’)

More of a state of the soul than a collection of discreet songs, _Placer Found_ remains a remarkable debut, and might easily have been named after its final track, ‘Desert Cantos’. Like Codeine (on The White Birch) and Low (on The Curtain Hits the Cast), EDM capture the mood of a place, and if they seem to be entering similar sonic territory, then that’s not to say they haven’t found their own musical idiom, to match a set of lyrics that sketch the tranquillity and loneliness of the Midwestern states. With its powerful but restrained drumming, hushed vocals, and delicate lead-guitar lines, Placer Found is slowcore reaching towards post-rock; in fact, the 12 minute closer is just that (think Mogwai’s ‘You Don’t Know Jesus’ at halfspeed).

Elsewhere, clear drones underlie the buoyant and trebly guitar lines of ‘Longwall’ and the meandering figures of ‘In These Hills’, both of which resemble the spare instrumentals sketched by Aerial M / Papa M (i.e. Dave Pajo, formerly of Slint, with whom Burton would later collaborate). Certainly, ‘Placer Found’ sounds like the best material from Pajo’s first full-length collection of songs, Whatever, Mortal, and linking the main nodes in the map of slowcore, you could easily persuade a hopeful Slint fan that ‘Stanwix’ is a lost track from Spiderland, or The For Carnation, as Burton whispers about a family coming together to sit, say Grace, and eat, over impossibly slow music that seems about to break into rock, when the cymbals first crash, but instead yield up a gorgeously lazy slide-guitar solo, that gradually subsides, and almost mews like a cat in its final few bars.

Let Us Garlands Bring (2002)

Burton had already established himself as an intelligent observer of place, but his second album was richer in detail, as well as being his most personal in its emotional candour. Verses unfold like haiku, with each cluster of images linking Place – Season – Feeling. The emotions are often: a private pain, an indeterminable sense of “something wrong”, or the loss of a “forgotten faith”. In a sense, you don’t need these abstract cues: breath by breath, Burton exhales his soul into the concrete features of the world, losing himself among billboards and powerlines, rivers that are “rusted” (‘Centralia’) or “blinding white”, until he has a “vacant soul” (both from ‘Santa Carolina’). See below, though, for a longer examination of ‘Offshore’ – an eight-minute masterpiece of songwriting (equalled only by Sun Kil Moon’s ‘Carry Me Ohio’) that was later expanded into a 38-minute album. (8/10)

Jefferson at Rest (2003)

Slightly lacking in focus, EDM’s third album may not have found a new direction, and resisted any of the tricks (or, more simply, the long tracks) that made its predecessors more dramatic. Nonetheless, every one of its songs is a beautifully crafted thing, with or without any post-rock climax. In other words, it’s an album that succeeds in conveying its intended impression: of peace, and perhaps even fulfilment of the historic promise to grant liberty to all in America, even if it’s impossible to erase the shame. It may help to know that Burton’s father is a history lecturer, and the previous album had ended with ‘Light in August’ (named after a William Faulkner novel), hinting that the references aren’t scenery – monuments you pass, in transit – but signs the past is alive inside the present; that’s ‘Jefferson at Rest’, after all, not “Jefferson: dead”. Then again, it’s equally true to say that some of the signs of human habitation you pass lack any connection to history – as much a home as the shell of a hermit-crab – not because these are the people excluded, but those who don’t even have a connection to the past through so much as a corrugated iron church. See the second song: “factory worklights / miles of windblown acreage / wind like a siren / howling through home-steads / wash---ed a---way // gravel roads trailing / move to the river / far across the border / oil light portraiture / all--- fall--- down…”

Considerations of how this fits with “slowcore criteria” aside, it makes most sense to describe Burton’s music (especially on _Jefferson_) as a kind of emotional minimalism, not to be mistaken for the oppressive sound of many slowcore bands – the relentless beatings of misfortune that contrast, yet explain, the crippling depression of Codeine’s lyrics; the suffocating atmosphere of Cat Power’s first three records; the inner fantasies of revenge soundtracked by Low on their own first three (with the bass like blood pulsing in your skull). In fact, Antony Hegarty’s immaculate new album, scored by Nico Muhly, provides the best comparison to the closing track of _Jefferson at Rest_, where Burton sings clear but quiet vocals over a guitar-line so discreet as to be ambient, with an identical second vocal, almost imperceptible, much lower in the mix beneath it than one would ordinarily set the levels when double-tracking – pulling at it, rather than boosting it. Demonstrating much the same economy as the best Low lyrics, Burton sings: “Community is on the rise; / you left me out, / in my mind. / You’re distant; / far behind.” Long, peaceful drones, almost indistinguishable from actual voices, begin at this point, and then the main vocal resumes: “What can we do / to bring us together? / To make us whole…? / What can we do / to bring us together?” What indeed? That false-vocal hints at the beginning of speech, infinitely protracted… eternally about to say the right words, which may in fact be any words, so long as they’re spoken at all.

All Harm Ends Here (2005)

“escape is simple / just leave” (‘We Know in Part’)

Aiming to write some of his most conventional rock-songs, whilst retaining the (characteristically slowcore) “power-in-restraint” of previous albums, Burton managed to deliver his most captivating set from start-to-finish. The songs are darker than ever, yet it’s not an oppressively bleak record (hence, “escape is simple / just leave”), and a closer listen to the record dispels any sense of self-pity, or the failed rockstar’s tendency to heighten their tragedy as if only that would constitute great art… all of which makes this a great comfort to anyone weary of rock’s histrionics. As Burton continues to sing/murmur, on ‘We Know in Part’, it’s possible to find a “secret world” if you listen closely. The guitars may snarl on ‘All Harm’, which picks up the tempo (okay, only as much as a Bedhead / New Years track), and the low-mixed lead guitar is overdriven to scratch and growl, but the mantra he’s singing is actually: “all harm--- / ends here--- / old faith--- / forgiv---en”. In a sense, then, this is a record about internalizing the lessons of the dark years, and moving on. Curiously, having established himself as one of the foremost realists among all lyricists – and Confessionalism isn’t the same as Realism, however sincere – a couple of songs (and the instrumental ‘The Purest Red’) allude to a vampire that seems to personify urban decay. Previously, the rusted and cracked human environment that Burton depicted had seemed always on the brink of being reclaimed by nature – that a decrepit factory is no more permanent and no more complex than an animal’s nest or burrow – but on this record, he discovers the malice lurking in the city, hence the subtle move toward more Gothic imagery, and a hint of Joy Division.

Offshore (2006)

The fifth album by Early Day Miners, Offshore, slipped out in August 2006, to no fanfare, and very few reviews. For listeners already aware of the high plateau they’d been occupying for several years, there was every expectation of another fine record, but no indications that this would be a record to rank alongside Joy Division’s Closer (1980), Songs: Ohia’s Ghost Tropic (2000) or Sigur Ros’ ( ) (2002); all of them records that transcend the idea of the album as a-collection-of-songs-by-some-people-in-a-room-somewhere, and instead come across as an experience in its own right.

Anyone familiar with the song ‘Offshore’ from the 2002 album will realize that most of the 2006 album’s lyrical content is taken from there, albeit spread across two tracks, now, and the climax of the earlier song is re-worked for two massive post-rock numbers. Writing and recording _Let Us Garlands Bring_ in 2001, Burton had been unable to respond immediately to the events of September 11th, but found that the song Early Day Miners had been closing their sets with for years had an added resonance after the massive betrayal of the people of New Orleans by the Bush regime. The lyrics below are no longer personal memories, but fragments of an oral history… or an urban archaeology, washed up after the floodwaters retreat:

“Twisted trail of fire / I’m losing you to your desire / in rooms---, with--- ocean views // A family in peril / broken and destroyed within / er---ased in warm--- concrete // Rusted oak and dragonflies / a masquerade ball / a Mardi Gras mask, a cheap fa├žade / white--- heat and misery…” (‘Return of the Native’)

Returning to those albums by other artists for a minute though (_Closer_, _Ghost Tropic_, and _( )_ ), there’s both a musical and a lyrical continuity here, if you think of portentous lyrics like “here are the young men / the weight on their shoulders” (Ian Curtis), the imagism of “the ocean’s deep nerves” (Jason Molina), and Jonssi’s distended vocables democratically inviting you to find exactly as much solace as you need, the perfect words that should have been said. As you’d expect from those comparisons, and the EDM reviews above, the bass and drums are worthy of Hook & Morris, the guitar and organ drones are layered into a detailed soundscape receding into the infinite distance, the guitars are expressive even when the strings are just being stretched and scraped, or the guitarists are manipulating feedback (as in the first three minutes of ‘Hymn Beneath the Palisades’ before the delayed-guitars start squawling, and then the main riff arrives, almost at the five minute mark.)

Unlike those three albums, on which the darkness increases track-by-track, as they deliberately lengthen, and settle into ever more sombre riffs (or protracted guitar freak-outs) _Offshore_ has a curious symmetry to its sequencing. Book-ended by a pair of 9-minute post-rock masterpieces that charge along like a train seen from a distance (track 1) and a train bearing the listener toward a dark and skyscraping city, the lyrical content of the album amounts to two poems of desolation sung by male and female voices (tracks 2 & 4). Each of these “poems” roughly follows the melody that’s the album’s leitmotif, although each without a chorus. It’s a sign of the album’s integrity – demanding to be experienced as a single suite – that the tracks are cut-off so that they can’t be played individually without a jarring break, and the third track (between the two “poems”) is almost entirely a chorus:

Give up
Giv-ing in
Run-ning hand in hand

A-way from Destruction
In-to your Desertion
Give in-to Temptation
Se-ver all Relation

(‘Sans Revival’)

Here, at last, is hope. Is this the hope of a deserter from the US Civil War… or a contemporary immigrant, escaping one of the world’s countless wars (many of them precipitated by US intervention)? Is this the hope that led them to places like New Orleans, where they may yet be victims of “geographic racism” (i.e. the selective neglect of poor quarters, or the siting of environmental hazards near ghettoes). Is this, then, the hope that dissolves all historical distinctions when it’s You (plural) against the world?

[slightly edited from a previous publication on DiS]

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