Down Among the Dust and Pollen

It’s been around a year since I first heard Fleet Foxes’ “The Shrine/An Argument,” and I’m still in love with it. So is my husband, who said this morning, “I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that [this] is one of the best songs ever… It’s everything amazing all rolled into one.” And that’s coming from a sometimes agonizingly picky musician.

If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s definitely folk, reminiscent of ’60s groups like Simon and Garfunkel, but refreshed by non-folk elements like the free jazz bit at the end. It’s mysterious and ambient, unexpected and austere, progressive without being off-putting. It’s deeply, tenderly spiritual in a personal, unsentimental, non-evangelistic way. It’s flakes of sunlight, dark caverns, green apples, hidden pools, gray ghosts of fog drifting along the chill northwestern coastline. It physically hurts — like lovesickness — to hear it. Robin Pecknold singing, “Sunlight over me no matter what I do,” stretching out his pretty-folk-singer voice to release a brief, hoarse cry, gives me chills. The lovesickness is for those wafts of simplicity and purity and the kind of primal spirituality that escapes language and ritual, that’s only observation and feeling, that come in certain pensive moments I wish I could gather up and cling to, but that inevitably slip away the moment I recognize them for what they are.

“The Shrine/An Argument” also has an incredible music video directed by Sean Pecknold (Robin’s older brother and the man behind Grandchildren.tv). The video, like the song, is eerily mythic, at once surreal and earth-bound. Listen to the song with your eyes closed first, then watch the video below.

The Grit and Purity

I’ve been moving further away from popular music lately, listening more to low-key songs with deep roots. It’s been part of a general move, I think, toward simplicity and quietness — things unadorned, that hint rather than shout, that tenderly lay all bare and still embody mystery. So I’ve been listening to musicians like the Great Lake Swimmers, Old Man Luedecke, Joanna Newsom (thanks to my brother) and Joni Mitchell’s early music.

And then, for my birthday last month, my mother-in-law gave me a great CD, Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music. It’s a compilation of 34 songs, ballads and instrumentals endemic to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. All of the music on the CD was recorded in 1939 by “Song Catcher” Joseph S. Hall on assignment from the National Park Service, who displaced the people of the area to make way for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A lot of the music was considered lost until recently, when the recordings were rediscovered and released by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. My husband’s family is from Tennessee and I have ancestors from North Carolina, so it’s a little like listening to the ghosts of our ancestors. But what my husband and I love most about the music on the CD is its sweet homeliness. The voices are unpolished and often off-key; the fiddle and guitar strings squeak as fingers slide along the fretboards; and the recordings have that scratchy, muffled overtone that accompanies old sounds. It’s this ruggedness that makes the sound so pure. So often we think of purity as sanitized reality, but it isn’t. True purity is gritty, unpolished, flawed. Nothing is perfect and art rooted in truth accepts this, values it. To deny the soil, the warps and flaws of nature is to deny the whole, to make it less-than. I find myself needing that wholeness more and more as I go on.