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In The Course Of. . .
An interview with Richmond’s sonorous South
There is a slow wind blowing from the South.
It tinkles, vibrates, oscillates and burns. It wraps itself, bougainvillea-like, around the trunk of cyclical harmony. It is, perhaps first and foremost, the sound of one band napping.
South is a musical ensemble from Richmond,Va. It is composed of, at various times, as few as three and as many as five members. While clearly informed and influenced by the much-ballyhooed–if ill-defined–post-rock sound currently encroaching on the musical landscape, the group manages to forge its own identity by crafting something…Southern from the decay of late 20th century languor.
Rather than plink in concentric circles like Tortoise or skronkily meander ala Bardo Pond (to name two high-profile post-rock practitioners) South opts for a longer and more serene world view. Notes chime and repeat, supported by a complex lattice of accented, rolling drums. Washes of keyboards mingle with clear, resonant vibe work. Disembodied vocals waft in and then depart, leaving songs awash in shapely, measured repose. The group makes, in the words of one member, “thoughtful music.”
“Our music takes a little patience,” says Nathan Lambdin (guitar, vibraphones, keyboards). “The best place for it may be in someone’s room.”Fair words, for South’s is head music in the truest sense. “Our music is harder to hear without the CD,” offers Patrick Phelan (vocals, guitar, keyboard, bass, piano). “The CD gave clarity to our music.”
And it does. The band’s eponymous debut on the distinctive Charlottesville-moving-to-Columbus label Jagjaguwar (see below) consists of six songs penned by Phelan and Lambdin, carefully played over 33 minutes. Splashes of Orientalia, in spirit if not instrumentation, waft over the listener. There is an Eastern tinge to melodies,a fragile sense of repetition imparted by the sonorous tones. When asked to cite influences, however, group members demure, opting to couch their words in scattered references.
“We’re all influenced by a lot of stuff,” Phelan says.” Obviously a lot of shoegazer stuff; Philip Glass and Steve Reich are big influences. But some of us are into Ween, Brainiac, all sorts of stuff.”
Drummer Tod Parkhill concurs, adding “you’ve got to break past being exclusive as a music listener.”
In some music, that epiphany– that breaking past– for the listener comes in the form of words.
In the music of South, lyrics are more a semiotic exercise. “They’re meant to be reflective on life, on our lives,” Phelan explains. ” The idea is to shape the verse from a feeling. We’re trying to convert our life experiences to music.
“To that end, the song “Flannery” is a highly personal tribute to author Flannery O’Connor; “In The Course Of” deals with hazy ends and dusky beginnings; “Walk” seems a distillation of time and remembrance, an unstained canvas summarily coated with meaning.
If South’s lyrical musings are minimally elegant on record, they become,with the instrumentation, pure mood in real time. Indeed, the compositions are a quietly revelatory experience when received via live performance. The sound is muted, the volume polite: It is as if, after inducing an initial reverie, the group is loath to break its own spell. The band’s set at the Jagjaguwar Fall Classic at the Tokyo Rose in Charlottesville on Nov. 20, 1998 saw core members Phelan, Lambdin and Parkhill abetted by bassist Bryan Hoffa and vibraphonist Jess Bittner. Absent was Peter Neff, who contributed dulcimer to the album. The quintet switched instruments between songs, yet otherwise stood stock still, conjuring gently cyclical hymns that attest to the members’ professed interest in serial and twelve-tone music. “There’s definitely an atonal aspect to some of the loops,” Parkhill says, referring to the layering of measures and rhythms.
That may explain the hypnotic swirl that is South’s defining characteristic. And it may make sense of the tumescent sound rendered with a shifting, malleable center, a quality made explicit when heard live. For the performance, above all, connotes a sense of arriving without traveling.
Does this pacifistic approach impede acceptance by the audience? Is the group confronted by rabid calls for heads-down rockism, or stylishly gentrified detachment?
No, group members say, to the contrary. “Everyone’s really receptive,” said Phelan.” It’s been a case where the crowd finds us.”We feel really comfortable playing with the other groups on Jagjaguwar, and the same people that like them usually seem to like us.”
A straight thing, that. Indeed, what could be straighter than watching, or listening, to the world click by, a steady stream of wishes –not just those borne by the Southwind but issuing from all the compass points, simultaneously?
Farewell to Darius