Written by: Dave Cantrell
Thanks to “Portlandia,” all the world is now on spoofingly intimate terms with our puddle-pocked city’s many quirks. But one class of citizen yet to feel the show’s gently loving lash is the singer-songwriter, the community of which here is plentiful enough to populate half a season and still have a glut of leftover hopefuls lined up around the block. This being Portland, they are quite naturally a bright, supportive and genuine bunch with just enough convivial incestuousness to keep the scene cohesive and good-naturedly competitive. And, this still being Portland, the quality is mostly brimming if, for my money anyway, a bit too in thrall to the prototypical singer-songwriter model of sleeve-hearted earnestness, a well-miked acoustic and a more-than-passing familiarity with the Green Linnett catalog. Inevitably this underlying fealty to form creates a rather abiding conservatism, no matter how well executed. Some, though, via sheer talent, a dare to innovate and a necessary touch of bloody-minded irreverence, manage to escape, or, rather, transcend. Some are named Elliott, some are named Laura, some are named Leigh.
The last full-length Leigh Marble released was Red Tornado in 2007 (his debut, Peep, appeared in 2004), a spirited, typically literate work with a clear debt to classic, circa ’73-era rockin’ singer-songwriters. With its mix of deuced-up electric guitar, agile arrangements and its skews of romance and doubt, the album had a galloping wry confidence that approached the zest of Zevon sprinkled over the brio of Westerberg with a dash of outlaw country on the side and positioned its author as one of this town’s most promising artists, even as modest distribution muscle meant that too few were made aware of that fact. But even if Red Tornado had found the wider audience it deserved, 2007 is a while ago. Many whiles ago, in fact, and in that time The Decembrists strung the Crane Wife up in the rigging, Blitzen Trapper re-energized the plaid bloc (jam band division) and the Sufjans, Grizzlys and Joannas all drew new maps of the heart’s many chambers using their own peculiar compasses, all of which helped ensure that the words ‘Leigh Marble’ and ‘radar screen’ would seldom find their way into the same sentence.
Then came Where The Knives Meet Between The Rows. Though the soul of those earlier records echoes forward – Marble hasn’t completely reinvented himself – nothing in those previous efforts could have reasonably prepared you for the vaulting leap forward that Knives represents. Listen up.
The album comes at you from a near distance, pounding out of an eerily buzzing shroud with a steady, deliberate beat, a thick echo-y cadence hypnotizing you into a dark lull that, despite the simmer of anger that permeates, never quite leaves you. The song is “Walk” and it will capture you. Hell, by the time the somber-toned, pathos-heavy organ and the quietly chopped acoustic get layered on to that ominous buzz-n-beat at the 23-second mark, full-out possession is already in place.
Though loaded with restraint, “Walk” just about explodes with furious emotion, a contrapuntal set-up seldom heard with such intensity since Elvis Costello’s “Beyond Belief.” Leigh Marble, however, deft lyricist as he may be, is not about wordplay per se, especially when faced with the weight of the topic at hand, the sudden and serious ill health of a loved one. At the time of most of this album’s writing, at the time of its recording, Leigh’s wife Elena, in her 30s like he is, was fighting an aggressive breast cancer, an elephant-in-the-room subtext that jabs and prods and infuriates throughout this record. So as not to be strung up on the thorns of suspense for the duration of this review, know that that Elena went into remission, became pregnant, was cruelly revisited by the disease in the midst of that pregnancy, gave birth to a bright-eyed baby girl while battling her way back toward health and you thought you had a rough year. A decision was made to be up front about it all and not just in song and so he, they, have been.
In terms of song, though, confronting and incorporating the pain and fear and reeling fallout of such a circumstance requires a sure and delicate touch, forcefully honoring the anger while also showing a respectful humility for the all-too-human vulnerability that hangs over our every waking moment. In essence, you’re dancing the existential waltz here and Marble, straight out of the gate, displays Astaire-like agility.
It’s difficult to conceive of a more effective premise to express the hellish frustration and almost brutish hopelessness that would confront us in such a situation than that presented in “Walk.” What do you do? You’re angry as hell but at whom, at what? At life? Don’t be silly. God? Please. And the absurdity of the equation is just too much. Potentially fatal, out-of-the-blue diagnosis vs. the still fruitful bloom of youth. Ridiculous, and Walk is a brilliant distillation of exactly that nowhere-to-turn state of mind, a stunning piece of songwriting and production (by Marble himself, his years hanging out at Jackpot Studios have not been for naught) that cuts loose an impossibly Gordian knot of emotion and lets it unspool, if not to resolution then at least to some relief. For just under five minutes the man has found a way to vent, to throw off like sparks his anger at the vast indifferent face of the cosmos, even as doing so fails to lead him to peace and in fact no doubt leaves him as ineradicably pissed off as before. At the end of the day, it would seem, a respite is as much as can be asked for or hoped, even one that ends with the line “I’m gonna walk until my heart..stops.”
It’s remarkable, then, that all this is accomplished with rage held in an artful, clenched-teeth check. No one would have begrudged Marble railing and wailing with the crushing catharsis of, say, The Swans’ Raping A Slave EP, channeling the inchoate fury with a roaring noise to match. And yeah, that would have been imperishably human and effective in its own visceral way but not only is it not his style, the approach that was taken here, in arrangement and tone, exudes a viscerality even closer to the bone.
Beyond it wrenching humanity, what makes “Walk” one of the year’s most compelling, seductive and magnetic album openers is it accretion of subtleties. Other than that pounding floor tom heartbeat and Marble’s vocals, the rest of the song is a build of elements the majority of which seem to appear somewhat before you notice them. Even what they’re all built on, the feedback buzz that the tom-tom intrudes upon, comes wandering into your ear like some kind of reluctant insect that’s lost its swarm, that’s also simply looking for a way out. In a piece of production genius the buzzing presence rears up in the mix then disappears just as Marble’s vocal comes in. Make of that what you will but there’s a despair in the hand-off, we’re left feeling a bit bereft, not least due to the driving loneliness of the melody, hinted at by the prelude organ figure but only made fully apparent when Marble starts singing. This is already a song that’s going to hang with you for a long time and it ain’t half done with you.
There’s the single resonant bass note – which again you hadn’t noticed was missing and thereafter becomes an actual bassline – and the low growling cry of a keyboard texture that greet the second stanza. There’s the spaghetti western sound effect that ripples left and right soon after – god knows what’s making that – arriving simultaneously with a heavy solid, almost ominous piano chord. The piano stays, by the way, providing some achingly human, even eerie counterpoint during a rather devastating middle break that drops you into a field of sonic bewilderment and, again, loneliness before the song pours its many parts into a desperate and charging finale, the layered intensity by that point so strong the song threatens to swallow itself and you with it. And I haven’t even mentioned the quick electric guitar run that climbs out of nowhere late in the mix –epic – or the curious hamster-wheel squeak that also creeps into the mix in the last thirty seconds or so that most certainly needs no explanation. Though somewhat rare to say these days, “Walk” is a bona fide tour de force, a ticket to a timeless heart of darkness that you’ll want punched repeatedly.
This song gets dissected at length here not only to illustrate the craft at work – at its peak on “Walk” but evident throughout – but also to underline the type of melancholic luminosity that inhabits the album entire. It’s a risk, of course, beginning your album with what is likely the most riveting song you’ve ever created and an odds-on favorite for song-of-the-year irrespective of category. That it casts a haunting presence like the resigned confession of some floating djin-like figure robbed of its power to influence human affairs only adds to the risk.
There’s little to fear. The emotions powering this album’s opening track are never far from the surface and indeed provide the critical momentum for much of what we hear.
“Jackrabbit,” with its raw chords coming immediately on the heels of “Walk” (sorry), gives away its intentions before the vocals even have a chance to confirm them. Addressed to the less, shall we say, integrity-driven musicians and hangers-on in the rock game, it comes across as a quite serviceable fuck-off screed – organ stabs, kick-you-in-the-gut drums, hypocrite-shaming lyrics, those chords – until the chorus chimes in (quite literally) with its romping Dylan ’66 feel to it, that rollicking happy sneer of vitriol it’s impossible not to relish. A few songs further down the road, “Holden” takes another, more explicit and decidedly more muscular swipe at the music scene’s lesser lights, the “fucking fakers” and “horrid haters” that clutter up our daily lives. Presented again with some of that good-natured spleen we love so much, it’s effective enough in all its nail-spitting, F-bombed fury but in truth Marble doesn’t strike one as having quite the hairy-knuckled character necessary to pull off that kind of tough guy talk. Arranging for someone to “meet their maker” seems outside the guy’s DNA. Despite the spittle-flecked delivery, we’re just not convinced and, though it’s beautifully produced as always, we’re ready to move on when it appears the song is going to bow out as a more-than-adequate, 70s FM-styled sub-three minute album filler. Then the most amazing thing happens: utter, beguiling transformation.
Nearly as long as the song proper that precedes it, this coda, outro, second movement whatever, so defies expectation given the song it grows out of, it beggars belief. The metamorphosis is not only musical – and hoo boy what a shift – but fundamentally thematic as well, Marble’s timbre flipping from j’accuse finger-pointing – and we all know which finger – to an embrace almost, scorn giving way to forgiveness, to the understanding of human frailty, giving way, in short, to pity, the healthy kind that involves the recognition of glass houses. In the hands of a less experienced songwriter and, especially, producer, such a segue could not help but be ham-fisted, the song would topple from its own inelegance. Here we have the opposite. Transitioning out of a final splash of cymbal, we’re escorted into a whole other territory, a majesti-pop afterlude (see, it’s so good we’re making up words now) that, heard on a decent pair of headphones, provides one with one of those chill-inducing listening experiences we all crave, that we hustle others over to our houses to hear. Replete with glockenspiel, a trilling hi-life guitar run courtesy of Ascetic Junkie Matt Harman and a whole bevy of other elements laid on top and beside each other with Spectoresque care, all set within a simple, heaven-reaching progression with Marble at its center in honest, sympathetic voice, repeating the line “Who are you, who are you foolin’?”, the whole thing just bristles with a sense of the inspired, hairs standing on end and all that. By the time Rachel Taylor Brown’s simpatico harmony spirals up into the treetops a la Clare Torry on “The Great Gig In The Sky,” you’re done for, you might need a moment to recover.
Two enduring classics on one album should, and often do, suffice these days, tempting short-attention spans into instant download mode. Yet there’s far more to tell, far more to marvel at on Knives. There’s “Goodnight”‘s shuffling lament, the singer feeling he’s failing his partner (another of the tracks, along with “Walk,” Evil,” and “Nail,” at least, which should be viewed in the situational context) and boasting not only the killer hook line “I know you want to leave me, I wanna leave me too,” but also a fittingly drowsy guitar solo from guest Erin McKeown.
At the album’s center is a pair of tracks that seem to anchor then release all the tension and sorrow, all the existential ballast that has been weighing on the singer thus far. Both slow, exploratory tracks rich in atmosphere, “Evil” is unsurprisingly the more ominous-sounding of the two, doubling down on the floor tom intro of Walk before dropping into an exquisite quagmire of despair. Pitched somewhere between a ballad and a dirge, the production is once more so transfixing as to erase any concerns either of those two words may trigger. That it emerges, after suitable scrapes of mournful cello and assorted clangs and crashes of emphasis, into a powerful, momentarily stomping crescendo before fading back out should, by this point, shock no one.
Other than “Walk” and to a lesser extent “Goodnight,” “Nail” seems to speak most directly to both Elena in particular and the overall awfulness of their ordeal in general. As such, it stands as the record’s lyrical centerpiece, the plinth on which the entire enterprise is balanced, however precariously, an impression backed up by it being, production-wise, the most unadorned on the ten tracks here (a relative assessment; it’s still packed with nuance). Marble, in a voice somehow steady and shaky in equal measure, goes straight for the marrow, putting in summary light the complicated emotional troughs and somersaults inherent – and inescapable – when faced with the capricious nature of mortality. Nothing more need be said regarding the issues addressed but the fact that “hope” is rhymed in the chorus with “end of your rope” – again enhanced by the harmony vox of Ms Brown – speaks plenty. With its distinct feel of having been written in the middle of the night, and without a doubt best heard in those bleakest of hours while teetering on the fulcrum between darkness and light, “Nail,” if you’ll pardon the expression, nails it.
Thereafter, catharsis reached or abandoned – either could be true and they may amount to the same thing anyway – the album assumes a more typically album-like glide path, as if the muses, the gods, the Leonard Cohens of future past, whoever’s in charge of these things, have decreed “Enough heavy lifting, go have a beer.” Beyond the extraordinary second half of Holden, we get the rollicking, good-time bar band romp of “Pony,” its tale of “unholy matrimony” – doling out in clever bites the conquest-meets-disappointment dynamic of a carnal liaison – deliciously suggestive enough that one hesitates to describe it as infectious, though it is that, marred only by a somewhat regrettable simile involving a can of Pringles that might have warranted a second editorial look.
“Inebriate Waltz” and “Greener Pastures,” in their unflinching takes on our hapless species’ tendencies toward weakness and defiance, mine furrows of human experience once plowed with such eloquent simplicity by Joe Henry in his “Bob & Ray” days, Marble also displaying – big surprise – a similar talent for studio embellishment that sets them apart from standard singer-songwriter fare. But even when viewed strictly through that prism – and these are the two most singer-songwriterly tracks on the record – it only seems to certify how thoroughly on top of his game Marble is.
Driving home this impression (ha!) is “Cars,” a gently apocalyptic denouement spoken in the resigned voice of a narrator that realizes, with horizons full of gleaming, asthma-spewing traffic stretching out in front of him every afternoon, with piles of crap piling up in our lives and all the empty happiness that comes with it, that “the end isn’t coming, it’s already here.” Awash in sad-but-pretty leylines of accordion and synth – that latter doing a damnably fine impression of a theremin – and with an analog scratch that drags along behind much of the track, it’s a poignantly fitting way to go out. Resignation, after all, invariably involves acceptance. But that acceptance, whether in the intimately spiritual realm or on a broader environmental-societal level, does not imply capitulation. “Cars,” despite its lyric, would seem to suggest, via its tired yet redemptive inflections – that accordion, those cheerfully plodding drums, just its prettiness in general – that remission is always, somehow, possible.
Aside from establishing Leigh Marble as a songwriter of national stature and proving the guy’s production chops – if I had a next album coming out, he’d be behind the glass – Where The Knives Meet Between The Rows also proves a master class in limning exactly that axis, the one on which hinges the usual suspects, hope and despair, light and dark, good intention vs. bad behavior, all those classically twinned opposites whose symbiotic nature defines our lives. As mentioned, it’s a delicate dance, a kind of tap-dancing-on-a-tightrope that requires nerves of steel and a butterfly’s heart. For forty-eight minutes and one second, Marble walks that walk, dances that dance, doing so with a sure-handed aplomb that’s really rather dazzling. Against intimidating odds, he’s safely reached the other side.
Now’s the time for applause.
INTERVIEW WITH LEIGH MARBLE
On a fine Northwest July afternoon, Stereo Embers sat down with Leigh at one of Portland’s 10,000 pubs. Sitting outside in the sunshine and shade, wine and beer in hand, matters of health, one-man bands, recording and writing processes and East Coast vs. West Coast folk scenes got hashed over before figuring out world peace and Unified Theory. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity, though, so that last part didn’t make the cut…
SE– So, just generally, how’s it going?
LEIGH MARBLE – Been busy, a busy several months. Our daughter just turned three months last week, which has required a total adjustment of life style.
SE – How’s Elena’s situation going?
LM – Elena’s health is good. She’s on the last round of chemo treatments then gets a break before beginning radiation in the fall.
SE– Prospects look promising, then.
LM – Oh yeah, yeah, for the long term. I mean, y’know, it’s always scary, even the best doctors have no idea why it happens.
SE– Especially at such an early age.
LM – Yeah, and twice around. But we’re really hoping this will eradicate it. That’s how we’re moving forward.
SE – Well, all our thoughts are with you, obviously.
LM – Thanks.
SE – Getting to the album, it’s clear from the energy and drive, especially on Walk but a number of other tracks as well, that this was a cathartic record. But I want to get first to the production, which is superb. Other than some engineering assistance on three of the ten tracks, the record is wholly self-produced. So the question is, when did you become such a studio boffin?
LM – (laughs) Well, I’ve spent a lot of time at it. Been almost 20 years since I started recording. I wrote for Tape Op magazine for several years and tried to just..understand that world. I never worked in a studio as a professional engineer (though Marble did, as mentioned, do a lot of hanging out at Jackpot Studios with Larry Crane), I was always bringing it back to the basement, to the 4-track. I was always reading reading reading, talking to people online. Coming up, I would’ve killed for something like Tape Op. You could get books about recording but those all had pictures of giant LA studios and stuff and it’s like, I don’t have $5 million worth of mikes to put on this kit, so I could have used Tape Op, it would have really sped up the learning curve. But yeah, reading and doing and just thinking about it.
SE – An absorption process then.
LM – Yeah
SE –And you’re obviously a very efficient sponge.
LM – (laughs) I try.
CITC – Not exactly a compliment in most circumstances, but –
LM – In this one it’s a compliment.
SE – So yeah, this is clearly a cathartic record, it’s fired by a sense of catharsis, but did that motivation ever kind of get in the way, like “I need to respect the intensity, this better sound epic”?
LM – (long pause) There were certain decisions made to make some of the tracks sound that way. Walk, for instance, going over every moment as it unfolded, how it was going to build, things like that. There were other tracks where it was decided early on that they would be better served by keeping them sparser and lighter. Goodnight, for example, I mean it’s not any lighter of a song emotionally but production-wise it’s basically what we did in the room, we weren’t adding things, and that was a decision made to contrast the denser pieces with some things that felt a little more natural.
SE – Beautiful song, by the way, especially lyrically.
LM – Thanks.
SE – I find that a lot on this record. There does seem to have been a lot of care taken with the lyrics.
LM – Yeah, always. If I’m gonna get up on stage and sing them in front of people, I’m gonna think about them more than once.
SE – Not everyone does.
LM – Well, I tend to think a lot, and sometimes it’s an effort not to go back and mess with it. I definitely wrote and rewrote that song but Goodnight’s an example of one where I was like ‘I should just say what I need to say, get in get out and not feel I have to gild the lily.’
SE – OK, the classic artist question. What’s your process like? What comes first, words, images, melody, combination of?
LM – Most songs start with words, a phrase that has a rhythmic context. A line or two lines, but I already know from the start how that’s going to fall over a beat. And so usually, because I know that, the kind of rhythm comes next and melody seems to grow pretty naturally out of that. But, I’m not a super-sophisticated Beatles chord book kind of guy, so I’ll often come up with some chords right off the bat and think ‘Yeah, that works over it’ and I sit with it a while and that’s the stage where it becomes more craftsman-y like, because I might come back to it and say ‘That works OK but I could emphasize it better if I went to a different chord here and try and come up with a more interesting flavor.’ So that’s the order but it usually starts with a word or phrase that’s the conceptual heart of the song.
SE – Once in the studio, is there much collaboration in the shaping of the song?
LM – Oh yeah. Before going into the studio – with this record anyway – I had a full band together, so actually, for a long time, we were going in and working on new material as a band, and I recorded all that but mostly just as reference tapes. And I’d listen to those, think about what worked, what didn’t, and over time I’d build up an arrangement and some charts, loosely speaking, make notes of things like if the drummer did a little fill that worked really well I’d hear that then tell the drummer ‘That’s it, that’s the signature fill’ and try to sculpt a song like that. But so far as the band thing goes, I wanted it to get to the point where we could just go into the studio and record what we do as a band. So, do a ton of work – and we were rehearsing and working on arrangement over the course of a year – and the plan was, let’s make it all happen in the practice room first and then all we’ll do in the studio is capture that. So yeah, a lot of back and forth collaboration with the band on this record, but it ended up not being a quote-unquote band record. I didn’t feel it had to necessarily be a case of whatever we get in the studio, I’ll mix that and that’s the record. Some tracks were like that but for other songs I’d take some of those tracks and build the song in a new direction. On this record, too, I brought a lot of friends in. Some came in and played new parts but some just came in to listen, people whose taste I like and I’d play them a track and be like ‘Tell me what you hear.’ The song Walk was hugely shaped by listening sessions with one friend of mine. So yeah, I had the time to bring in a lot of people and a lot of opinions.
SE – Speaking of the band, I know there’s some flux there, what’s the status of things band-wise? There was the CD release show and that was the full band.
LM – Well the band I did the CD release show with, a couple of those guys I’ve been working with for a long time now, but ongoing, my plan, for a number of reasons, is, once I start doing shows again, to work out a one-man band sort of show. Not just with guitar but other elements as well. We’ll see how that goes. That’s not how I want to leave things forever, I love the interaction of a band, but there are lots of situations where it comes down to being able to tour or not tour and doing it solo makes it more flexible. So far as the band is concerned, I’m still in touch with most of those people, they’re still friends, some could be convinced, one guy’s gung-ho about it, the rest of them could be convinced to do more, or not, but it doesn’t feel like a unit. It’s more like, y’know, if the occasion arises, like the release show, that’d be great, but for the time being it’s gonna be the one-man band thing.
SE – This album, compared to 2007 Red Tornado, feels a bit of a leap, both sonically and in the songwriting and structure of it. Does it feel that way to you?
LM – Oh yeah. But I think it can be explained by the fact I took my sweet time on it. I mean, you get three years to do a new record, you grow, hopefully, you improve during that time. I’m glad to hear it seems a leap forward for you. It does to me as well.
SE – Going back a ways. You from Portland?
LM – Not originally. Been here a long time though, fourteen years.
SE – From?
LM – I grew up outside of Boston, small town. Portland had a reputation as a rainy, singer-songwriter town and I was like ‘I’m gonna give that a try.’ (laughter)
SE – So Boston, whether it’s nationally known or not, must have a folk scene going on.
LM – Oh yeah.
SE – Did you partake in that?
LM – Yeah, I did for a few years. Boston’s folk scene is a lot of coffeehouses – I went to a lot of open mikes – but it’s also..because it’s been going for a while, I felt it was a little..dogmatic, in terms of ‘These are the kinds of songs we want to hear.’ I was more drawn to the grittier, more rock-influenced scene on the West Coast.
SE – Lastly, how’s the response to the album been?
LM – So far, I would say 95% of what I’ve read I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see what I intended to communicate came across. I knew what I intended to do, so it was a question of ‘Did I manage to put that across so that it makes sense to anyone else?’ And after you’ve been in the studio working on a record for a year you have no idea until people actually listen to it. But it’s been a good response, and of the type I’d hoped for.
Further Reading: www.leighmarble.com