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Comfort Music

10 January 2006

What do you do on a sick day? When I’m home from work because I’m sick – as I recently was for a couple of days – I almost always finding myself watching WOODY ALLEN films, on DVD or VHS. For years that’s been my sick-day habit, to put on one or two of his films. Almost any of them, Annie Hall-and-after, is a likely candidate. There’s something reassuring about the similarities among them: the way the credits look the same, how the music is usually jazz standards, the way the plots and characters echo each other, the NYC setting. It’s like comfort food, I suppose. I know what I’m getting and I know I’ll enjoy it.

I don’t use music in the same way when I’m ill, except for the occasional reliance on my tried-and-true favorite albums to take a nap to (MY BLOODY VALENTINE’s Loveless, BRIAN ENO’s ambient albums, WINDY & CARL’s and AMP’s entries in Darla’s Bliss Out Series, and, perhaps oddly, JIMI HENDRIX’s Live at Winterland). Sure, there’s plenty of music that I find especially soothing or relaxing, but I don’t instinctively listen to it when I’m sick.

There are, however, musicians who I appreciate for their reliability. Even though he often alternates between comedy, drama, and something in between, I know what a ‘typical Woody Allen film’ will feel like, and that’s partly why I find his films comforting. Similarly, many of my favorite musicians have maintained one consistent artistic voice over the years, even as they’ve switched up their style in small ways now and then. They’re musicians who are always in danger of being described as repeating themselves, artists who occasionally get ignored for years at a time because the each album sounds too much like the last one. To me familiarity can be a winning quality. Repetition isn’t always a sign of being stuck in a rut. Sometimes it’s the mark of someone who possesses a singular creative voice, who has built his or her own distinctive musical world and is working within it.

I’m thinking of someone like JONATHAN RICHMAN, whose inspirations, style and themes have remained so consistent, and unaffected by popular tastes, that the album of his which is mentioned most often is one he recorded as a teenager, over 30 years ago, even though he’s released somewhere around 20 albums since then. When you put on a Jonathan Richman album, you know instantly into whose worldview you’ve just entered.

Though his discography can be separated into a few distinct periods, TOM WAITS occupies similar ground, in part because his voice (his literal voice, in this case) is so unmistakable, but also because the universe within one of his songs is so detailed, so full. I think also of musicians with a strong storytelling voice, like TOWNES VAN ZANDT or JOHN DARNIELLE of THE MOUNTAIN GOATS, and of someone so committed to his own personal style that he takes other people’s songs and makes them sound like his own, like MARK KOZELEK (of RED HOUSE PAINTERS and SUN KIL MOON) and jazz vocalist JIMMY SCOTT.

I suppose something like ‘cult musician’ is often the code word used for what I’m thinking about, for musicians who do with they do, and do it well, with some people loving it, and some people hating it. Yet this isn’t just about eccentricity but consistency, a certain focus and purity of vision. It doesn’t only apply to the outcasts and oddballs. Think of how devoted to his beloved style of music TONY BENNETT is, singing the same old songs in the same timeless way over 50 years after he began. I admire the persistence it takes to stick to what you find pleasurable and carry it on like that, just as I admire the fact that the great New Orleans piano man PROFESSOR LONGHAIR sang the same exact songs for his whole career.

I like surprise, change, and innovation as much as anyone, but there’s something to be said for consistency of vision. It might not put an artist on best-of-the-year lists as easily as a bold departure will, but for music listeners it offers the distinct pleasure of comfort.


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