Homonym: “Jerusalem Ridge”, performed by Chris Thile and Tim O’Brian & “Jerusalem”, by Black Sabbath
I struggled to choose to start talking about Chris Thile with either “I can’t understand why more people don’t know who Chris Thile is” and “I can understand why more people don’t know who Chris Thile is”. His lack of notoriety will solve itself in October, when he takes over as the host of A Prairie Home Companion, following Garrison Keillor’s retirement, but I think the former is the correct statement, double negative non withstanding. His musical path is at least close enough to Ricky Skaggs’ to have that level of public awareness, but somehow he still doesn’t. Although Thile does the majority of work in groups without his name in the title(Nickel Creek, The Punch Brothers) he is always the standout in whatever ensemble he is a part of. He’s the tall, goofily emotive one here. Take a listen:
The song, “Jerusalem Ridge”, and the superb musician, Tim O’Brian, are the perfect pairing to help explain why Chris Thile isn’t a household name. Tim O’Brian made his fame as a founding member of Hot Rize, a bluegrass band by name but more of a traditional folk/old-timey band by nature. Concerts by Hot Rize were always great but safe; as talented as a group they were(especially O’Brian and banjo player Peter Wernick), their music stayed on the course of tradition, with an occasional odd break as a make-believe cowboy western band. And “safe” is an appropriate way to describe many folk-based musicians, including the ones that consider themselves bluegrass musicians by trade(for the ultimate source knowledge for the division between folk purists and bluegrass musicians, please please read How The Hippies Ruin’t Hillbilly Music by St. “Wish” Wishnevshy. Borrow mine if you can’t find it). Tim O’Brian is universally loved in the bluegrass community, and his musicianship is top notch but noticeably conservative.
“Jerusalem Ridge”, though, was a strictly bluegrass composition, written by Bill Monroe and fleshed out by his fiddle player at the time, Kenny Baker, to be a flashy showpiece and quite the opposite of conservative musicianship. Monroe certainly had tight control over his “brand”, but part of that image was having the best stable of musicians in the industry, and there were always songs in the repertoire that showed off the talents of the current musicians. “Jerusalem Ridge” was showoff music.
Watching Chris Thile play fills me with joy. He obviously loves all music that is well written, from rock to classical to bluegrass. He is the most talented mandolin player alive, and one of America’s true genius musicians, but the bluegrass community wants him to be Ricky Skaggs and he isn’t. Nickel Creek’s modern take on bluegrass started the divisive term “newgrass”, which Thile started when he was eight years old. He won a MacArthur grant, officially given him at least the giant paycheck with the word “genius” scrawled in the memo ledger, and he, joyously, kept doing goofy shit like this, which is awesome(yes, he also made quality recordings of Bach concertos, but look at him having fun):
Chris Thile didn’t do himself any favors by aligning himself with Mark O’Connor and Edgar Meyer, who are elitist snobs when it comes to “modernizing” bluegrass music; they even added Yo Yo Ma to form a quartet of the most gentrified and bland bluegrass music ever done by talented musicians. It’s bad stuff. Chris Thile is the odd man out in that group, though; he’s never been out to “elevate” bluegrass music. That he’s never been out to strictly follow tradition is what gets him in trouble, not with the musical cognoscenti but with the bluegrass community. They think he’s too flashy and somewhat disrespectful. Which is horseshit. Watch him play “Jerusalem Ridge” one more time. His breaks are nearly perfect. Bill Monroe would hire him in a second and rub everyone’s noses in it.
“Jerusalem”, by Black Sabbath, is so shitty. Listen first, then three contextual elements:
- 1990 was a magical time to be a teenager who loved heavy metal: Seasons In The Abyss. Persistence Of Time. Rust In Peace. Hell, even Passion And Warfare counts. I’m not sure Painkiller counts, but it wasn’t that bad, and Judy was in court that year defending their albums against claims of Satanic backmasking, which is super metal. It was a lot to keep up with, and all the publications a young metalhead would read to try and stay informed were all ate up with ads for Tyr. We all bought it. Goddamn, it was super bad.
- Black Sabbath had a well-defined relationship with what the singer was supposed to do in the wobbly post-Dio part of their history: sing, and write the lyrics. When Ray Gillen, of yesterday’s birthday band fame, proved to be too shitty a creative partner for even late-80’s Sabbath, Tony Martin came in to pitch hit as singer. He stayed on for the next album, Headless Cross, and, being the first time he had the now-traditional role of writing the words to the songs, proceeded to write the most cartoon-y, melodramatically Satanic lyrics since the backs of my peer group’s Trapper Keepers in 1989. Tony Iomi asked Martin to tone the devil imagery down for the next album, so you get the loose concept of Norse mythology in Tyr. I mean… super loose. If you listen to the whole album(don’t though), the concept never coalesces. Jerusalem was never known for being a hotbed of Norse deities. I don’t even think David Iche thinks that.
- Are you wondering if I learned my lesson from this terrible album from a band with an outstanding legacy? The next year I bought Jethro Tull’s Catfish Rising. The day it came out. I am dumb.
Homograph: Smile, by The Beach Boys & Smiley Smile, by The Beach Boys
When I first really understood the brilliance of The Beach Boys I was also at my most polarizing in regards to my music opinions, and I though that Smiley Smile was trash and could fuck off. That’s no longer true.
Back sometime in either 1997 or 1998, listening to tape-traded bootlegs of the Smile sessions with a friend for the first time was kind of like listening to the world’s most secret and beautiful prayer. And, to feed the power of the mystique and my new-found championing of Brian Wilson’s place on the American Musician Mount Rushmore, I wouldn’t accept any substitutes or slights to his genius. I still feel like Smiley Smile is that, but only in a historical sense. Much like how it’s difficult for me, still, to listen to Second’s Out and feel the unnecessary weight of Peter Gabriel’s absence, when I hear the songs that the two records have in common I still reference the Smile versions and track orders first.
But now I enjoy hearing Smiley Smile because of how it fits into my and their history, not in spite of it. The songs have a drugged flippancy to them compared to the careful arranging of the Smile sessions. I can’t listen to “Little Pad” without thinking of my friends, of how many “Little Pad”s there might be with us all goofing along on some lost recorded mini disc we used to record our band rehearsals. Discussing discovering Smile is almost too personal to me, too specific of a time and a place in my life that was terrible and wonderful, maybe the most terrible and most wonderful so far. Smiley Smile I learned to love separate from my friends but still connected to them.
The mystery of Smile is gone now, too, even though the brilliance remains, and that’s a part of my maturing attitude about both albums now, too. Thinking about getting mixtapes now is quaint, almost romantic. Smile resonates with that romanticism still, but there is an excitement, if no real intimacy, about pretty much all music being available to everyone everywhere. Smile will stand up for those who didn’t have to work hard for it.
For me the ghost of nostalgia still haunts Smile, where Smiley Smile makes me think of who I am now. When’s the last time you listened to both?
Near Cognate: The Beach Boys’ “The Warmth Of The Sun”, by Chris Thile with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
Earnest, beautiful, not necessary perfect. I’m excited for what A Prairie Home Companion will become. Especially after reading the comments on this video where people claim that The Beach Boys needed “studio magic” to sound good. I’m asuming by “studio magic” they meant “near suicidal, drug-overdosing levels of parental abuse”, which was what they were getting.
Anyhoo, Gillian Welch is the perfect company for Thile to keep: a talented outsider that won the respect of her peers just being true to herself. That’s all Thile has ever done. Hopefully the respect rolls in.