In the interest of full disclosure, I played on five of the songs on Audiolake’s new CD Films. Painstakingly stitched together in increments over several years at Fairfield uilleann-piper Tim Britton’s home studio, the final result far surpassed my expectations. Joe Holland, the singer/ songwriter responsible for birthing this work, has composed himself very nicely, as it were, finding his own voice not only as a singer but as a lyricist of remarkable texture, substance, and dexterity.
Never mind that the lanky Brit appears to have been born with the gift of fab gab and clearly has his way with well-heeled verbiage. Let’s just say he makes his points with Crosby, Stills, and panache, if you know what I mean. Joe did time as a talk-show host on late-night radio in London, chatting up all manner of souls into the wee hours, running the gamut on any random topic. This talent for cross-topical spontaneous interaction has no doubt played into his songcraft.
As a former show host at Fairfield’s community radio station KRUU-LP, he did a bit about the al Qaeda banning certain vegetables in open markets from being displayed next to each other because some were considered female and others male. It came from a news report he’d found.
Before snickering too loud, let’s not forget how some Christian churches reacted to the licentious advent of rock’n’roll, labeling it the “devil’s music” and a corrupter of youth, which, of course, only served to make it that much more attractive to young people everywhere. (Never mind about the etymological roots for the term “rock’n’roll” . . .) When John Lennon, during the height of Beatlemania, after learning that church attendance for organized religion was on the wane, let slip his observation that the Beatles juggernaut appeared to be more popular than Christianity, Fab Four records were denounced and burned in bonfires, especially across the southern United States. Cute mop tops were one thing; biting social commentary, a whole other thing.
Back to al Qaeda and the fixation on vegetables and gender: What kind of twisted soul would put tomatoes next to zucchinis or cucumbers, heaven forbid? Aside from undermining society, who knows what such a tempestuous, lascivious display could incite in the young people? Holland strung the bit out masterfully, skewering narrow-mindedness with a typically cynical, self-deprecating touch that reminded me of something Patrick “Binghimon” White has sung: “When you point one finger, three point back.” Joe sallied forth, wondering if the Taliban ban meant coed salads were off the table, or if cutting vegetables in little pieces somehow uncorrupted them. All dead vegetable beating aside, this was vintage Hollandaise sauce, presented in a fluid, simple way, hilarious on the surface but also cutting deep as social commentary on many levels. And this is what Joe and Audiolake have accomplished across the board with Films.
The first cut on the CD is called “The Day Iran Gets the Bomb.” The piece begins in somber minor-key tones, drenched in Daniel Sperry cello and Werner Elmker grand piano. Ian Fry’s tasty drumming. Car reference in the first verse, a recurring metaphor (I sell my car, I shall conquer the earth, but I won’t set out till I get what it’s worth.”) There is an imprimatur of Leonard Cohen in the smartness of the writing, the depth of subject, the minimalistic suture-like melodies, the orchestral maneuverings.
The piece sounds foreboding with aching, morose, woeful cello lines carved out like funeral etchings on a suffocating casket. But listening close to the lyrics, I hear the song turn inside out: “The day Iran gets the bomb, let’s all meet up at Wallington Pond, pencil in from midnight on . . . we’ll dance in the moonlight and play our guitars, in the morning we’ll rise and sit feeding the swans, the day Iran gets the bomb.” Is he saying Iran getting the bomb is inevitable, or, even more provocatively, if so, that it doesn’t automatically mean the end of the world is at hand? Is it a commentary on how people over-focus on certain subjects at the expense of looking at themselves? Or is that just me reading all this into it?
Personally, I love music that works by itself, that is, on the non-intellectual level, but that also leaves caves to explore, motherlodes to mine, codes to crack, on the content side. Writers and lyrics that respect and expand the listener’s capacity to sniff out and grasp concepts, without pummeling them like Oliver Stonehenge, allowing the space and mystery for one to draw one’s own conclusions. Art that makes you an artist because being exposed to it draws you directly into the process of discovery and revelation. What a world it would be if teachers taught this way, or if parents, mentors, religious guides, brokers, and politicians incorporated this approach. What was it Delmore Schwartz wrote? “In dreams begin responsibilities.” William Butler Yeats said, “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.”
I think Audiolake swims beautifully in these holy waters. Holland’s sense of humor/perspective is unleavened wry, flatbread that often explodes later in the cool recesses of your mind. It’s his way of looking at things—love seen through the eyes of two cars in a parking bay (“First Kiss”), years of longing, finally slipping away in the dead of night, heading for a tunnel’s mouth, one from the North, one from the South. “They hit top speed, the road was clear, they both saw headlights coming near, and then at last the touch of bliss, as the loving pair shared a sweet first kiss.” (Perfect tune for the Crash sequel.) Another favorite song is “Not Light Yet.” A snappier darkness-before-the-dawn song, complete with whistling, was never sung. Iowa City’s Dave Zollo contributes keys to great effect on both songs and three others. On “I Kidnapped Your Parents,” a meditation on the distance between dysfunction and love, legendary harmonica player Howard Levy toots along masterfully.
Holland navigates in and out of his songs with a sort of unbearable lightness of being that is sweet and subversive at the same time. It allows him to speak in universal, everyday language about ordinary things—albeit with a fair share of Britishisms—sprinkled with a newsman’s instinct for political laissez-savoir-faire: “There’s war in the Middle East, turn off the news; you can play the Arabs, I’ll play the Jews,” from “Doctor Armancore’s Serenade.” Or “Last week I bought myself a paradigm shift, a free protest march came as a complimentary gift,” from “Memories.”
All I can say is, sit back, grab some popcorn, turn down the lights and enjoy some great Films.
Also appearing on the CD are David Hurlin, Rick Stanley, Miranda Mallard, Eric Hurlin, Tim Britton, Brian Smith, Doug Daller, Hannah Holman, Ron Odrich, Lindsay Horner, Jeffrey Hedquist, and Greg Wadsworth. The recording was engineered at Pied Piper Studios by Tim Britton, co-produced and co-arranged by Holland and Britton. Remixed by Jon Kelly for Stephen Budd Management. Mastered by Guy Dave at Electric Mastering, London.