Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Songs, Plain and Simple

A little over two years ago while surfing iTunes for singer-songwriters, I discovered the Canadian, David Francey, and downloaded his song, Midway, for a playlist I was creating for Kathy.


David's music reminds me a lot of Lyle Lovett, not so much in subject matter as a propensity for making the fifth of the major scale the center of gravity.  He doesn't have much of a vocal range, nor does he have any affectations or pretensions or any distracting mannerisms to take you out of the richness of his natural gift with words.  It doesn't hurt, either, that he is blessed with a rich baritone voice and the expert collaborator, Craig Werth, on guitar and back-up vocals.

David Francey sounds like your average Joe with a decent voice and an easy-going manner.  Listening to him sing, you wish he was in your neighborhood, maybe next door, a guy to invite over with his wife for a pot luck supper on the deck at the end of a beautiful weekend.

Well, he's not in my neighborhood, and I know him only by his recordings, which I can listen to for hours on end.  I told Kathy last night that there is something totally comforting in the sound of most of his recordings.  The acoustical space reminds me of the Ian and Sylvan records of the mid-60s.  Their recording engineers set up equipment in old hotels with big rooms to reflect the sound if the guitar and autoharp. They worked for a sound that didn't sound "engineered." Craig Werth's guitar work is right out of the 60s, too, the same finger-style patterns we all learned for coffee house work.  It is simple, clean, immaculate, and right for David Francey's manner of singing.

Last night I thought of Gordon Lightfoot, the "dean" of Canadian songwriters when David Francey was growing up.  Lightfoot's recordings in the 70s seem over-engineered when I enjoy them now.  There is more interest in the instrumental backup than in the vocal delivery.  Lightfoot had a problem of vocal tension above middle C that became a liability as he aged.  The "sweet spot" of his voice was in the middle of the bass clef, and what a beautiful baritone sound he had when singing there.

Here's Gordon Lightfoot in 1979 singing his 1971 hit, "If You Could Read My Mind."  The melody begins in his sweet spot and rises to the range where he adds vocal tension -- clenched jaw, tightening throat.  For the next thirty years the sound was still recognizably his, but it was less and less listenable.

Francey's singing has a different technical flaw, the "Dylan haze" that comes from a general self-strangulation.  Bruce Springsteen and many others picked up this affectation from early Bob Dylan records.  If you've ever heard Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue," you know the hazy sound I'm talking about.

I can't listen to Bob Dylan hour after hour.  These days, we put on the David Francey CDs an hour before dinner and turn the sound back when we sit down to our meal, and just enjoy the feeling that a friend came over with his guitar and swapped songs with us around the fire place.

Here's David again with Craig Werth in a radio studio in London, singing "Broken Glass."

If you come over here for dinner some time, chances are we'll still have David's CDs in the player.  And if you play "Midway" again, I suspect you'll remember this haunting image: "And the girls in the house of mirrors/combing their hair."

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Student of Light

Since I was twelve years old, I have loved to see the world through a camera lens.  Several decades ago, when my father gave me his much-used SLR camera, I subscribed to Modern Photography magazine.  Of the many tips I filed away from the columns of Bert Kepler, this one tip became my "golden rule."  He said something like, "remember when you are taking pictures, that your subject is always light."  I began to see the world differently.

I always carried my camera in the car with me back then.  I was playing at being a pro photographer, which means I wasn't really making more than small change at it and it wasn't my real occupation.  It was my passion, though, and I wanted to be as good as the pros who regularly sold their scenic pictures to Vermont Life magazine.  I became attuned to the intricate play of light on the scenes I drove through as I traveled the length and breadth of Vermont.

The scene above, Main Street in Johnson, Vermont, was one I had seen hundreds of times, as I lived in the neighboring village and drove through Johnson a great deal.  One evening in May I was on my way to an appointment on the other side of Johnson, and as I rounded the bend and came onto Main Street, I saw a quality of light on the faces of the buildings that made me pull over then and there.  I got out of the car, snapped two frames of the same composition, and later sold the image to Vermont Life.  It was light that made me pull over, but Lady Luck who kept distractions out of the scene.  There are no moving cars in the image, no dog pooping at the curb, just the classic look of a small town with two white towers lined up on the same side of the street in the light of a waning day.

For the next decade, Vermont Life used my pictures here and there pretty regularly, and I realized that I had made it into the same ballpark as the "real" pros, but that I differed from them only in the ability to allocate full-time attention to the hunt.  At some point I became more interested in growing and hybridizing daylilies.  My love of photography followed that interest.

  I gave a talk to my daylily club last night and showed them this image in a section titled, "Color and Light."  To me, light is the true subject of this image, because without the slanted rays of morning sun turning the red petals into "transparencies," the picture would be cluttered and confusing.  Backlighting converts the picture into an advertisement for the pleasures of growing "spider" daylilies with narrow segments and lots of open space in each blossom.  You can also see this particular cultivar, "Red Ribbons," from all angles here.

I said I was the only person on the bus tour who stopped to enjoy the sight of these flowers before the sun rose to a height that took away the magic of this moment.  Everyone else walked right past this vision in search of "the latest and greatest" cultivars or the breakfast snacks. 

My advice to people last night was, "when you step off the bus at the first garden on the tour, look for the light."