The first time I heard the song "Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder" by Gastr del Sol I was completely and utterly blown away. It left this lingering surreal feeling for the entire rest of the day.
This time I'm writing about just one song. I don't really know if I have a favorite song, but when people ask me if I do, I usually just go ahead and say that it's this one, because no song has ever felt so singularly powerful and overwhelming.
The song starts off not unlike a lot of other Gastr del Sol songs, you get the sense that this song might be a little like "The Relay" or another piano-as-vehicle Gastr del Sol song. And that alone was fine, because I love it when David Grubbs plays the piano in that cryptic, slowly understated style. He slips in and out of scale in a way that makes my brain feel as if it is being fed a balanced, nutritious meal. It's really nice. So the song goes on.
All of the early first three minutes of the song kind of drone and flicker along, until out of nowhere this strange building starts to pick up, as if the song up until that point is just a guy sleeping, and then suddenly some beam comes and sucks him out of his bed and into the air like an alien abduction. I am surely missing the point with this analong, but I think it's safe to say that the main thing that anyone remembers about that song is when this "launch" occurs. At 2:55, everything comes in so big and throbbing, harmonized vocals, some kind of organ, the persistent faint electronic blipping in the background, the horns, the gurgling synth bass, the intensely vibrato'd strings, and the piano - the piano playing pretty much the same as it was at the beginning of the song, but given new context by the pedal tone of the synth bass and the strings that sound like blood flowing out of a slit wrist. It's a very intense song. When I heard this part of this song, I thought to myself "This must be what it feels like to be on heroin." As if the pain and joy of the entire world was contained in the beautiful experience I was having right at that moment, but it was neither sad nor happy, just magnificent in its being.
This surprise ends with an organ solo. A very strange organ solo. It sounds like they invited some guy who just really wants to rock out, like someone from the Saturday Night Live band was invited to come in and take an organ solo. I guess it's a surprise inside a surprise.
Like most of Gastr del Sol's songs, the lyrics, when taken from a traditional view of "song" they make about zero sense:
most blues are subtitled
either no sense of wonder
or no sense of scale
for example, there's a routine, subtitled I have no idea how long
subtitled I don't care how long, subtitled why not untitled
I have dozens of titles
Hmmm... Taken out of context, they make no sense, but when viewed from the lens of the rest of Gastr del Sol's work, it is actually relatively heavy and emotional. It's as if a person you knew to be autistic his whole life one day just broke out of that shell and just really leveled with you: It was still kind of coldly cryptic, but you could find so much life even with so little to go from. Perhaps this is why this album marks the beginning of the end of Gastr del Sol. Until Camofleur, Gastr del Sol might as well have been being making music that was obscure on purpose. It was music for people who knew a lot about music, kind of a meta-music that spoke to the guy in your town who only listened to bands nobody had heard of (it's important to note that they accomplished this in the era before the internet, when a wide knowledge of music was not simply a matter of how many "similar artists" you could download and fit on your hard drive, music was about discovery in a much more meaningful, social sense). You see, Camofleur, despite being weird, was a relatively pop record. More about this pop business later.*
What I thinks helped shape my experience of hearing this song was the fact that I heard it out of context from the rest of the record. For many months I only had access to this one song. It was not prefaced by the pretty cool song "The Seasons Reverse" and it certainly was not followed up by the supreme boner-killer known as "Black Horse" (I am about 100% sure this song was Grubbs' idea, to quote Werner Herzog in Julien Donkey Boy when he hears his son's poem at the dinner table, "I think I hate it").
"Blues Subtitled No Sense of Wonder" ends even more quietly than it begins (are those wind chimes I hear at the end?), with a refreshingly crowd-pleasing major lift, but in the wake of Gastr del Sol, we are to realize that this is pretty much the last of that truly grand, mysterious David Grubbs style of piano playing.
*It comes as no surprise that Grubbs and O'Rourke's solo work after Camoufleur both represent more pop manifestations of themselves, although the execution of their newfound freedoms came across in distinctly different ways.
The Thicket, David Grubbs' first major post-Gastr offering was not bad, but just about completely forgetable. Nobody has talked about this record since the year after it came out. It was just so incredibly white, in a way that only a grad student could like. The worst thing about this album was probably the lyrics. The abstract words that once went well with the weird fragments of Gastr del Sol now just sounded like the most boring guy in the world trying to find a rhyme. I know I may be sounding harsh here, but it was as if someone had taken all of the things that I liked about David Grubbs and turned them off, leaving only some weird professor in his place. And the person who had turned these things off was Grubbs himself. Yikes. No piano! I loved his piano. Ever heard of a record called Arise Therefore? He even made Will Oldham sound brilliant and dangerous with his piano notes, solidifying Oldham's standing as a voice to be taken seriously, at a very crucial time in his career.
The rest of David Grubbs' work after that? I don't know. There was that album after that, whatever it was called, the one with all the puns in it, but again, it was just too normal, too academic, too boring. Don't get me wrong. I think that David Grubbs is absolutely brilliant. He is in part responsible for some of the smartest, weirdest, and coolest sounds I have ever heard, and I don't know if he looks back at that stuff and thinks it's immature, but I'm afraid the dude will never be the same again.
In my opinion, unlike The Thicket, Eureka by Jim O'Rourke was brilliant, it was a revelation because it was good, and because O'Rourkes solo work up until that point, while vast and extensive, had been far from pop, it was more like book reports on the smartest, most serious musicians of the past 100 years. That's why hearing Eureka was such a (for lack of a better term) "eureka" moment. It's name was so refreshingly unironic. Eureka was smart, listenable, weird, and funny. It was so powerful because it was like seeing Stravinksy singing showtunes: In my mind, an integral part of the whole experience of listening to Eureka was that the pop contained therein could not be separated from the context of the man behind it.
It appeared as though O'Rourke had done something more revolutionary than the sum of his most obscure, challenging work by making something so beautifully personal and listenable, until he kept doing it, with records that became less and less fresh as the pop contrast to his avant-garde roots became less of a surprise (Halfway to a Threeway, and whatever that classic rock-ish one after that was) and more just like regular music.
Perhaps that is why Jim O'Rourke identifies with Japan. His transparency in music shares many parallels with Japan's approach to what the rest of the world has to offer. Jim O'Rourke is just as much a curator as he is a musical immitator, in the same way that Japan inhales foreign culture, industry, and science with a voracious appetite: Immitating it while disregarding what the rest of the world has declared associations and mutual exclusives. Why can't an avant-noise guy make a perfect pop record? Why can't you put put natto on spaghetti? Regardless of how they do adopt foreign ideas, what comes out is distinctly Japanese, and in the same respect, regardless of what type of music Jim O'Rourke makes, there's a competence and sophistication to it that is so distinctly and undeniably Jim O'Rourke. Now he lives in Tokyo, has pretty much given up on music so that he can concentrate on making films. I'm sure that his movies will exude the same distinct flavor that can be found in all the music projects he worked on.
But back to Gastr del Sol. I think what we have here is a classic tale of why two great minds often can't work together for very long. They had their good moments together in Gastr del Sol, but ultimately, they were just too strong of forces to work together for too long. It would be like if Yasujiro Ozu and Federico Fellini were forced to make movies together. They might make some really awesome stuff, but you could be sure that it would not last. Sadly the role of the visionary is usually fulfilled by just one person, and the rest must have the capacity to either follow or withhold their own visions. Whether or not that is a good thing seems to be an eternal question, but what is certain among those who have seen it is that the force of creative direction is too strong to keep people together, at least for Americans.
Until the next group of musicians too momentarily young and idealistic to realize they are too smart for each other comes along, we are left with glimpses like this, small moments when the elements combine in beautiful, mysterious bliss.