By Daniel Garrett
Brass Bed, Melt White
Produced by Brass Bed and Danny Reisch
Park the Van Records, 2010
I thought of the harmonies of the Beatles and the Beach Boys while listening to “Aria” on the musical group Brass Bed’s album Melt White.
Sometimes the simple things take courage: it can take courage to cry or to smile, especially if others are pretending to have no feelings at all. It also takes a certain strength to identify an ideal and remain committed to it, especially if it is an old ideal in a time of changing values, when decadent indulgences reign. I thought of that after listening to Brass Bed, and finding myself remembering the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the dreamy popular music that followed those two groups in different forms through the decades. It was even more eerie to hear Brass Bed’s “People Want to be Happy,” which immediately seemed a favorite—hadn’t this song, which I had just heard for the first time, been a favorite of mine for years? Yet, the band is creating its own artistic moment, and it is a moment that others can enter and make last.
Christiaan Mader (singer, guitarist), Jonny Campos (singer, guitarist), Peter DeHart (drummer), Andrew Toups (pianist), and Jacques Doucet (bassist, vibes-player) are Brass Bed, one of the bands that have been keeping the rock tradition alive and interesting in the American south, particularly in Louisiana. Radio programmer Cecil Doyle, of KRVS out of the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, with Baton Rouge’s WRKF one of the most necessary public radio stations providing conscious culture, has been one of Brass Bed’s champions. (As I write these words, I am hearing Judy Carmichael’s jazz interview radio show, and Jonathan Schwartz is singing, “When you’re far away from New York town, you’re nowhere at all.” It is not an original sentiment—but one different communities, such as those in Athens, Georgia, and Seattle, Washington, and Lafayette, Louisiana, have felt compelled to disprove. I think Schwartz may be off-key.)
Noise erupts at the beginning of “Miniature Day Parade,” but it is quickly followed by charm—affection and melody; and in the song’s rise and fall—noise then melody, noise then melody; piano alone followed by the whole band—there is a pattern that is recognizable from some of the rock that became popular during the 1990s. Noise was colonized then, put to musical use, as it is here; and there seems to be a critique as part of the affection offered in the song. “Panthers” has a jangly rhythm, a throbbing, gristly guitar. The singing in “Begs Me Not to Beg” is soft-voiced, rather sad; and I wish that I could hear the words more clearly (I know that a woman is described, and one of the lines mention “a time to grow”—and a woman begs the narrator not to beg). In “God Save the Thieves,” there is a line about the king of rock-and-roll choking on his food, and another about everybody wanting to do down to the movies; and the music is both richer—clearer, heavier, rounder—and more spare, in that it seems mostly voice, guitar, and a kind of swirling effect likely produced by a synthesizer. There is banjo in “Maybe It’s Not Me” (both Jonny Campos and Jacques Doucet play banjo), but the song does not sound old-timey; and the subject seems to be more relationship torture—as is that of “Strangers.”
“Take a shot of courage and let them know that you’re suffering too” is advised in “Bums on the Radio”—which could be about the malicious conservative political talk, ignorant and sanctimonious religious proselytizing, and tasteless racial humor one hears on some southern radio, as much as the commercial musical pap that’s sold (not saying it is)—and it begins sweetly and goes wild. “Pop Mission” starts wild and ends wild. Truth, lies, and the destruction of evidence are proposed in “If I Was a Farmer,” in which the narrator claims he would rather be something other than free, the assertion of lovers and converts, an assertion that is hard to believe. I will have to listen to Brass Bed’s Melt White a little more before I come to firmer conclusions, which will require additional time.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Garrett originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.” He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.