By Daniel Garrett
Brushfire Records, 2012
“…But maybe what is most underground about the underground is the way in which, in the end, its boundaries are in dispute, so that what’s above and what’s below are always up for debate.”—Rick Moody, “The New York Underground, 1965-1988,” On Celestial Music (Back Bay Books, New York, 2012; 312)
Afie Jurvanen was born, but he might have been invented. He stands under a light, in a place, that seems to have been with us for a long time, making intelligent and intimate music, singing in a sensitive voice, playing tuneful guitar; attractive, mellow, rocking, seductive. The singer-songwriter who grew up in the Ontario countryside, was influenced by J.J. Cale, Ry Cooder, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young, and has been recording as Bahamas; and he, as Bahamas, recorded the album Pink Strat, which debuted in 2009 and received nominations for the Juno Award and Polaris Prize. Afie Jurvanen has been performing with Leslie Feist, who has taken up a similar cultural space. (Jurvanen’s singing was compared to that of Bill Callahan by Paste and The Boston Globe.) Performers such as Afie Jurvanen and Leslie Feist have won the attention and respect of an appreciative audience, not least because they seem to be resisting the current status quo, while embracing an older standard: The popular music of the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century consists of rock, hip-hop, country, and dance-pop that frequently takes on themes of love, sex, ambition, competition, conflict, money, and recreation, usually no more than a recycling of clichés. Those forms constitute the music of the establishment, the music that record companies promote and that the media chooses to write the most about. Consequently, European and American classical music and jazz and Broadway are on the margins, and have the potential to represent ideal values and a space for cultural rejuvenation: beauty, civility, community, creativity, harmony, individuality, innovation, intelligence, liberty, lyricism, passion, sophistication, tradition. Even forms that were new a few decades ago, such as the confessional, literary singer-songwriter tradition, have acquired a near-classical aura. Drawing on an old troubadour style and also western folk music and the glamour of modern individuality, the singer songwriter is able to maintain an appeal that seems timeless. Afie Jurvanen, for Bahamas, writes about—what else?— existence and love on the album Barchords, called a “gorgeous, full-bodied recording” by the Los Angeles Times (February 7,2012).
“I think it’s harder now to find real connections with people, just because there’s all this really negative, hurtful stuff out there that’s bombarding us all the time,” Afie Jurvanen has said. While wanting to maintain his independence, he has continued his commitment to constructing songs that attempt to express recognizable emotion and connect with other people. (Ken Tucker, commenting for National Public Radio, March 14, 2012, said that Jurvanen sings in a “sensitive-boy voice that neatly skirts wimpiness.”) Jurvanen is helped on the Barchords recording by bassist Darcy Yates and drummer Jason Tait; and live Jurvanen performs without the bassist but with Tait and a couple of singers, Carleigh Aikins and Felicity Williams. Jurvanen’s composition “Lost in the Light,” which opens Barchords by Bahamas, is a mellow, downbeat ballad, sung with laconic delivery, sexually suggestive. “Before we were lovers, I swear, we were friends,” sings Jurvanen, an assertion that may be hard to believe when things go bad, as they often do. “Caught Me Thinking” is appealingly rhythmic, playful. “Montreal,” featuring guitar, has a solemn rhythm. “Honey, please don’t give up on your man,” pleads the narrator in that song.
“Okay, Alright I’m Alive” is heavy, downbeat, with lyric tribute to musicians (George Harrison, Sam Cooke). Music critic Ken Tucker has suggested that in that tribute is an acknowledged possibility and transformation. “Never Again” is soulful, and for Michael Brodeur of The Boston Globe, February 14, 2012, the song evoked D’Angelo, though for me it conjured an older performer, Prince, with its heavy drumbeat and throbbing guitar. The African-American reference should not surprise: “Rock and roll, in its later incarnations, was not primarily made by African Americans. Rock and roll was very heavily influenced by African American music; it borrowed liberally from the music of African Americans. It stands on African foundations. Occasionally, maybe even more than occasionally, as with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, or Jimi Hendrix, or the Bad Brains, it has been best played by African Americans,” wrote Rick Moody in his wide-ranging anthology of music essays, On Celestial Music (Back Bay Books, New York; 331), a book in which Moody comments—sensitively, thoughtfully (and sometimes with an awkwardness that is charming)—on Meredith Monk, the Magnetic Fields, Danielson Famile, Wilco, the Lounge Lizards, Pete Townsend, Otis Redding, La Monte Young, the Velvet Underground, and more.
On Barchords by Bahamas, the composition “Overjoyed” is something of a bluesy slow dance song (Paste’s Rachel Bailey found “Montreal” and “Overjoyed” sketchy, rather than fully developed, February 7, 2012); and “I Got You Babe” is a song of dedication, of love and loss. The music on Barchords is more comforting than provocative.
“Any Other Way” is focused on deciding whether to have a child, whether to maintain a pregnancy; it is a song about a child, and implicitly about the possibility of abortion, that sounds like a lullaby; and the narrator says he will be jumping for joy once the commitment to have a child is made. I cannot think of very many songs like it, in terms of theme. “Snowplow” is slow, heavy downbeat, moody; and “Your Sweet Touch” has a confessional, beseeching vocal tone, with ringing percussion and thrashing guitar. “Time and Time Again” has an old-timey string instrument sound, with a spare vocal; and it contemplates a lover’s presence and place, with what seems realistic contentment about the changes in a relationship. The composition “Be My Witness” is a nice close for the collection: a sweet, sultry ballad about facing one’s limits, about being loving but honest—it is consistent with the other songs here.
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, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.