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Murder & the Road: Laura Marling, Courtney Barnett, & Torres

I’m in Albuquerque, stop #1 on a southwest book tour for my latest collection, strange theater. I had a friend who lived in this city for years, a small home out near the petroglyphs, and who was murdered in 2014. The case has still not been solved. Unless the police can uncover new evidence or get a useful lead, there’s a good chance the case will never be solved.

I decided to drive out to my friend’s house, the place where she experienced her final moments. On the way, I played Laura Marling’s Short Movie, a shimmering and spacious set of tracks, very singer-songwritery and folk-infused, with prominent vocal and (mostly electric) guitar. Marling’s voice is more textured and seasoned, more poised and detached than I typically associate with a 25 year-old, conjuring for me how Chrissie Hynde might sound if she were a neo-folk singer born in 1990. Marling’s music was an apt soundtrack as I drove through the stark landscape—and navigated my own internal vortices—towards the site where my friend was murdered. Marling’s tunes and messages are no-nonsense and hard-won, but also shot through with fragility. She has an ear for the subtle hook and frequently offers compelling wisdom. For example, on “Gurdjieff’s Daughter”:

Don’t be impressed by strong personalities,
sincere words are rarely sickly sweet.
But if they fool you, which they have been known to,
don’t lose yourself, know something’s not right…

“Divine” is a highpoint on the CD, and Marling’s voice ranges from tender to plangent. Her chorus includes a striking but subtle transition from verse to hook (“It’s divine, it’s divine”), an effective melodic segue and thematic summation given the song’s philosophic underpinning.

The title song is also a memorable moment, Marling’s driving guitar blending with the additional instrumentation to forge dynamic waves of volume and quiet. Her vocal is a bit lower in the mix than with other songs but still clearly discernable, the repeated lines towards the end serving as both confession and universal metaphor: “It’s a short fucking movie, man.”

Her closing track, “Worship Me,” warns against the perils of hero-worship (for both the “hero” and the “worshipper”), as Marling asserts that only God can fill the emptiness that prompts both dependency on adoration and the inclination to idolize another human (the reference to God seemingly used in a broad, even metaphoric sense). At the end of the song, however, Marling seems to waver, vacillating between emphasizing her earlier admonition and encouraging the “little boy” and “little girl” to “worship [her].”

I’m now parked outside a house that once belonged to a friend who was murdered. I don’t think the brain’s designed to process this kind of information. Of course, simply being here constitutes a pseudo-ritual, unconsciously choreographed, a wish thrown out to the universe, perhaps an unspoken request for some sort of knowing, that a distinct feeling or sensation might rise from the subconscious or float down from the sky, or perhaps both. There are those experiences that are mystically or psychically true; you have to be careful not to let time and logic erode what you were given.

I started driving again and put Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit in the CD player. Good pick, not distractive but certainly not music that’ll stir melancholy into a brackish vortex. (It’s interesting to me that however I feel, I tend to want to feel it more, as opposed to trying to bring the emotion into balance with its opposite; i.e., if I’m already bordering on despondence, I want to plunge into full-blown despair; if I’m already “kissing the sky,” so to speak, I want to soar into outer space.)

Barnett’s songs overflow with effective pop hooks. Her ambling lyricism, especially on the first couple of tracks, reminded me a bit of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” at least stylistically, though her melodic approach and overall emotional tone are way more in line with Tom Petty or Sheryl Crow. “Depreston” is one of those tracks you’ll want to play over and over, the melody and anecdotal lyric so immediately accessible, a contained but still scathing commentary on the capitalistic dream:

You said “we should look out further,”
I guess it wouldn’t hurt us,
we don’t need to be around all these coffee shops.

And:

This place seems depressing,
it’s a California bungalow in a cul-de-sac.

And the repeating lines at the end:

If you’ve got a spare half a million,
you could knock it down and start rebuilding.

“Dead Fox” is a rollicking and diaristic narrative that brings together soft-punk attitude with a sardonic take on climate change, again with the sprawling, sometimes quirky lyricism. The chorus is simple but compelling, a melody you find yourself still humming hours later. “Boxing Day Blues” ends the CD on a more pensive note, Barnett’s vocal treated and mixed so as to sound more “atmospheric” (reverb-y) than on other tracks: 

I’m not what you’re looking for,
my house has an open door.
You need a lock and a key.

And:

I love all of your ideas,
you love the idea of me.

Musing 1: Absence asserts a strange presence; identity’s confounding, the way we’re conditioned into psychological parameters, a corral that keeps us thinking we’re this or that.

Musing 2: What would the human experience be without the concrete? That conversation, that event, that look, that time when…

It’s later, and I’m getting ready for my first reading in Albuquerque. I put Sprinter by Torres (Mackenzie Scott’s moniker) into the CD player. With the first track, “Strange Hellos,” Scott sings to stark instrumentation, her voice ripe with angst and palpable ambivalence:

Heather I’m sorry that your mother
deceased in the brain,
cannot recall your name.

Heather I’ve dreamt that I forgave,
but that only comes in waits.
I hate you all the same.

Later the track erupts with an instrumental fury that reminded me of The Cranberries’ “Zombie,” Scott’s snarl reminiscent perhaps of early Ani DiFranco.

“Son, You Are No Island” is a standout track with its digitized vocal, etheric melody, and creepy instrumentation. The poetic commentary on initiation and manhood, delivered as it is by a woman (mother), is especially poignant. While Scott occurs throughout the CD as unpredictable and even confrontational, maybe a la PJ Harvey, atmospherically she reminds me more of a band such as the National, maybe a moodier and more raucous Sharon van Etten.

Part of what works so well for, and boldly distinguishes, Scott is her ability to navigate that space between the poles of restraint and release. There are certainly moments of abandon on this CD; however, Scott deftly avoids relying on the clichés of emotional extremes, instead sustaining an impressive tension throughout most of the project, her voice swelling but rarely bursting, shrinking but rarely if ever imploding. In addition, her lyrics are consistently engaging—biblical, feminist, confessional, and obliquely imagistic.

Well, I know, “the road” has got to be one of the most overused motifs, especially when it comes to rock and roll, but somehow you can’t deny its timeless validity on an experiential level, that unique mix of anticipation and nostalgia that washes over you as you steer onto a highway ramp. And here I am, pulling onto 25 North, heading towards Santa Fe, then Taos, then into CO. I’m looking in my rear-view mirror (ditto what I said above re “the road”), suddenly recalling Pink Floyd’s “Two Suns in the Sunset”:

In my rear-view mirror, the sun is going down,
sinking behind bridges in the road.
And I think of all the good things
that we have left undone,
and I suffer premonitions,
confirm suspicions,
of the holocaust to come.

A stellar example of how melody and tone can transform verbal cliché into a musical gestalt that’s undeniably fresh.

Albuquerque is indeed in my rear-view mirror. I can hear my friend’s voice urging me to play some f***ing rock and roll. Ok, let me see what I’ve got. I need to get this one right.