Why don’t we hear more of this weird stuff?
By CJ Sommerfeld, Staff Writer
Wyatt had created Rock Bottom, the album which ‘Sea Song’ was first released on in 1974, after he was rendered paralyzed from the legs down from falling down four flights of stairs one night while intoxicated.
During the early months of the quarantine, singer-songwriters Bill Callahan and Bonnie “Prince” Billy began sporadically recording and releasing covers of other artist’s songs. To mix it up, most songs featured a musician other than the two. These covers ranged from Billie Eilish’s “Wish You Were Gay” featuring Sean O’Hagan, to Hank Williams Jr.’s “OD’d in Denver” which featured Matt Sweeney. These are just two of the 20 revamped tracks that have been released so far and as you can see, there is nothing consistent about their genres. One song that stands out more than the rest, however, is their cover of Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” featuring Mick Turner.
Progressive art rock artist Wyatt’s “Sea Song” was originally released in 1974. His original was weird as is, but greatly differs from the Callahan, “Prince,” and Turner cover. Wyatt’s is raw, its texture is thinner, and his London accent floats above the synth—voice untuned—while single sporadic organ keys contribute to its atonal quality. In contrast, the 2020 version is a richer makeup with what sounds like deliberately enhanced disjunct notes. Callahan, “Prince,” and Turner share the piece’s vocals in a coordinated composition. It is only when the vocals take a break does the tune transcend into an atonal burst of synth, percussion, and sax squeals. The cover does, however, capture the mournful and melancholic timbre of the original; Wyatt had created Rock Bottom, the album which “Sea Song” was first released on in 1974, after he was rendered paralyzed from the legs down from falling down four flights of stairs one night while intoxicated.
I don’t think “Sea Song”—the original nor cover—is a wonderful stand-alone track. Sure, its lyrics are great, as is the story of how it came to be. But what makes this tune is that it does not conform to the confines of how we have been told music should sound. Instead, it is quirky and experimental and subsequently revives movements that we do not hear much of anymore. Minimalism and impressionism are two of which that have a place in history as they do a spot on some record collector’s shelf. Unfortunately, no comparable music movement has occurred recently, nor are we hearing much of a revival of this experimental stuff.
When we look back in time, the avant-garde composer John Cage for example brought new life to the piano with his “prepared piano” in the late thirties. He inserted screws and other everyday objects into the strings of the instrument altering its timbre to result in something much contrasted to what the piano is expected to sound like. Subsequently, his prepared piano works gained a following; just imagine how weird this stuff sounded. His best-known is “Sonata V (from Sonatas and Interludes);” have a listen, but before you do, I recommend you disassociate any expectations you have for how a piano sounds.
Another artist who reinvented how people listened to music is the influential minimalist musician Philip Glass. He has been making music from the ’60s onwards—most of which belonged to then-new genre minimalism—which was based on this idea of simple and brief musical ideas being varied and repeated over and over and over. Techno and other similar genres have derived from this movement. His stuff was at first viewed as grotesque as it skewed so far from most of what had been established as music in the West. But his radical pieces worked; Glass has since been noted as one of the most influential composers of the 20th century.
Sometimes we just need to listen to a track that is absolutely mad or create some with a similar adjective. Why is there not more music being made that steps outside the confines of what has been established as music? “Sea Song” is a refreshing reminder that not all music needs to be a variation of something that we have heard before.