7.3.04 9:20 pm

"I sit in the silence and try not to dream... caught in the coming change so beautiful and mean... and wait for the sunrise I have never seen."

Back Home puzzles and fascinates me. It's the penultimate track on Clearing, right before Steady On and right after Charlie's Cabin. It seems to be placed there almost to counterbalance the buoyant joy and optimism of the tracks that sandwich it -- because, in contrast, its lyrics are dark and pensive. Instead of the standard two-voice harmony and accompanying mandolin, percussion, steel guitar, etc. that characterize much of Clearing, the music is simple and uncluttered, just a melody line sung by Johnny to his fluttery, atmospheric fingerpicking.

Now, this may sound like a B-side track, an inferior ditty borne of a down day for Johnny. But nothing could be farther from the truth. It's an incredibly powerful song. In fact, I would argue that it's the most evocative song on the album (with the possible exception of Absaroka Air, which gets me every time). It paints a crystal clear portrait of a lonely, empty house and its lonely, painfully thoughtful occupant -- two entities more mismatched than this description affords. Johnny sings of someone totally lost for a place to call home, and waiting for a winter to come and bring an uncertain future.

It's an interesting song, but made even more interesting by the comparative lack of interest in it. Clearing is packed with fan favorites and many of the tracks on it have been re-recorded on Storyhill's live CDs and are often played at shows. The songs that fit into this category are Absaroka Air, Stillwater, Forgotten, Tremblin' Tracks, Somewhere In Between, Loose Summer Clothes, Happiness Runs, Charlie's Cabin and Steady On. Of the remaining three tracks, two of them are more run-of-the-mill and (in my opinion) more mediocre songs, Open Up Your Eyes and I Can Believe, songs that just aren't played as often, and understandably so. And then there's Back Home. Another track never re-recorded and I've never heard it live. But why not?

Where did this track come from? The recorded quality of it is different, too. The guitar is a little muffled, but the vocals are bright and present, unlike any other on the album. It almost sounds like Johnny got up in the middle of the night during the Clearing sessions, slipped into the studio, hit record and poured this melodic memory of a bad dream onto tape. Just a little secret thought, between him and you, the listener. But what a thought!

Back Home has been climbing on my "frequently played tracks" list over the past year. If you're a regular reader of this page... well, that's unlikely, because if you were, you probably would have given up about six months ago. But if you are, you'd notice I haven't posted in over a year. There are reasons for this. Primarily, my job since last August has kept me terribly busy, off-balanced and pretty depressed. Not a good frame of mind for these kinds of thoughts. And it's these same reasons that have caused Back Home to jump out at me these days, I think. The job is over now, but some of the feelings remain.

Loneliness is a strange and crippling emotion. The symptoms of this are varied. I make self-conscious and embarrassed calls to friends asking if they'd like to go out to lunch or watch a movie or SOMETHING. I try venues for meeting people that I never would have even considered a year ago. And I get nostalgic. I've always been prone to nostalgia, but being lonely seems to intensify that. None of this seems to serve any useful purpose though; they don't alleviate the most pervasive symptom of loneliness -- a penchant for dark and pensive thoughts. Thoughts that get echoed in Back Home.

I've made changes in my life, and I believe they will be for the better. But the changes are slow to take their effect. So I wait, too. Johnny and I, we find our way back to empty houses with the radios (or Media Players on our computers, maybe?) still playing, and wait for the sun to rise, gorgeous and painful, on the next part of our lives. Will this sunrise bring a warmer day? A house full? A better mood? I don't know. I have to wait. I have to call this place home still, until that sun rises.

In the meantime, it's good to have a soundtrack for these thoughts. I don't have to sit in the silence and try not to dream. Johnny dreams for me, his radio static and shaking shadows echoing my loneliness better than any dream of mine can.

6.18.03 9:45 pm

"You believe in this heavy speed... you've learned to know you have to..."

Upon the first listen to my recently-purchased copy of Echoes, I found a gem in the third track. It was a wonderful moment, sitting on a futon in a friend's room the day after their show at St. Olaf last April. It was one of those moments reserved for truly great fans of artists -- fans who have listened to a particular CD so many times that they have the tracks on it practically memorized. For those of you who fit into this category, for any artist, perhaps you know what I'm talking about. Have you ever started listening to a song you don't know, and then you suddenly realize that it's a song you do know, just in a different form? This may happen at concerts or upon first listens to live CDs.

This is what happened to me that day, when I started listening to that third track. I heard a guitar picking pattern I thought I recognized, but wasn't sure -- that is, until Johnny came in on the first lyric, right on pitch and with achingly beautiful intonation. Aahh, it's Great Divide -- the first track off of This Side of Lost. Except there, it's in front of a drumbeat and only serves to give a tonal context for the melody and the electric guitar riffs. But in this rendition, it's the entire accompaniment. The gentle picking pattern and simple chord structures serve as a gorgeous and uncluttered frame for the flowing harmonies and image-filled lyrics. I was transfixed. When it was finished, I immediately broke into a huge smile and started cooing over the track, much to my host's amusement.

It's still my favorite track off the album now, and these days I often find myself listening to it right before I go to bed. And really, I'm not sure what I like so much about this track, or why I choose to listen to it in such a regular fashion. Perhaps musing "out loud" about it will help.

The two halves of my life seem to wax and wane in inverse proportion to each other. In college, my physical life was full of complexities and details, while my emotional life was pretty even -- usually stressed and tired, but usually in good spirits and enjoying my studies and my friends. Now, my physical life is so predictable it's almost boring, and my emotional life is more complex than it has any right to be. I find myself in buoyant, wonderful moods at one point in the day, and then dour and inconsolable hours later. This inconsistency can be troublesome, especially to someone who likes his life to be on a mostly even keel. I could speculate, of course, on causes of this, but that's a topic for another webpage (one that would be more personal and thus much less interesting).

What this has to do with Great Divide is that listening to it before I retire gives my day -- both physical and emotional -- something to anchor on. Before I go to bed is usually my most emotionally vulnerable time of the day, when thoughts of my past, my present and my future come colliding together into a jumble of memory, nostalgia, worry and speculation. And the words and music of Great Divide speak to me very strongly about these things somehow, in that always-mysterious-but-always-effective Storyhill fashion. It soothes me with its gentle mix of wistfulness and hopefulness and it lulls me with its lilting and thoughtful melody.

Great Divide is written in the second person -- addressing "you." Perhaps that's all it is I look for at that time of the day -- a reminder that someone else has felt the way I do, that they know how I feel, and that it is inevitable that I will come around to my Great Divide, wherever it may be, and I'll be stronger for it. A good thought to sleep to.

5.18.03 1:00 pm

"It opens up to grasslands in waves... white schoolhouses, churches and their graves..."

This song is a recent favorite of mine. And, as usually is the case, it's hard to explain why. Chats with a friend of mine and fellow Storyhill fan have revealed a tendency in my analysis of Storyhill songs. Which is: that I take a holistic approach to it most of the time -- ignoring specifics about the lyrics in favor of an overall "feeling" I get about the song. I'm about to do that, I think -- so you've been warned.

My feelings about Satisfied Land sum up something that makes Storyhill important to me. It always seems like they're looking forward -- and wherever they're looking, it looks bright, exciting, expectant and full of possibilities. I don't know what it is about this particular song that echoes that so well -- the upbeat, sunny chord progressions that start it out, maybe. Or perhaps a couple of the lyrics from the chorus ("Come and take my hand, and I'll be waiting across this ancient land").

Most likely, though, now that I think about it, is the mental image it portrays. There's more than one, actually. The first is the scene of a young Chris and Johnny, traisping across Nebraska, on their way to a gig while the summer sun beats down and a muse touches one of them as they drive across the land. The next is the same image, except it's me now (and there's no muse involved, unfortunately), the unyielding Midwestern landscape is seen through my eyes. And the third -- we zoom out, and I see myself driving, headed somewhere, and it's in the near future sometime, and my love is in the passenger seat, with her left hand scratching the back of my neck, and she's smiling as she stares out the window and we sit silently, her hair blowing a little from the breeze coming in the half-open window, as this song plays on the car's stereo.

It's a pleasant picture. It's not whole (I don't know where I'm going, I don't know exactly how far in the future it is, and I don't know who the girl is), but the important parts are there (well... except for maybe who the girl is). Especially the part where I'm happy. Did I mention that above? Well, that's part of it too. It's strange -- I don't know if I really would be happy were I actually in this picture. But I think I would be.

This is what Storyhill does to me. Somehow the tunes and harmonies and lyrics enter my head and find some emotional spot to latch on and yank out something -- some conglomerated mess of desire, memory and dream -- and make me look at it, give it credence and consider what it means.

Usually this is in the future. It's something I'm hoping for, or looking for -- something I see, through my mind's eye and through Storyhill's filter of optimistic, emotional possibilities. In general, the visions that come to me from their music are always emotionally charged, whether for good or for bad. And they're definitely not always good. But if it's about the future, they're usually good. Honestly, though, why would I picture the future any other way? And Storyhill only helps -- giving me the soundtrack to an exciting and fulfilling life, visible only in my dreams and my mind's eye.

There's so much about my future that's uncertain. But through Storyhill, I see glimpses of what my future should hold. "Should" being the most important word in that sentence. Whether it's my subconscious, my hidden desires, or God telling me what should be, it comes through half-concrete, half-abstract pictures called up by the marvelous music I love so much.

4.22.03 7:30 pm

"Some people run from an oncoming storm... some people run, I just go in."

How is it that so many things in my life have become connected with Storyhill? On my way home from Minneapolis the other night, driving into the first storm of the spring, suddenly this song jumps into my head. I haven't even been listening to it for that long - I only acquired Echoes at the St. Olaf show a couple weeks ago, now.

On second thought, though -- it could be that this song occurring to me was secondary, having been preceded by Hide In the Rain -- "but the clouds roll in from the north again and cover up the day" -- (never mind that I was travelling south at the time) -- a song that I've known for a while longer.

Okay, let me dissect that question a little bit more. Maybe not "so many things." But a number of things. And all of those things are pervasive things. Driving and roads. Weather. Friendships and relationships (past, present and wishful thinking). The passage of time. Montana. (Hey, it's a big state. That's pervasive, right?)

That isn't really a very long list. It's not everything, I'm sure, but it's enough to make the point. I drive almost everyday. I deal with the weather everyday. And, for better or for worse, I think about relationships just about everyday.

This could be another clue into Storyhill's popularity -- the universality of their lyrics. Some guy at Macalester who's doing his thesis on popular music and religion is exploring this a little -- he's polling fans of Peppermint artists (of which Storyhill is one) about if the music has personal meaning to them. And if so, does it matter to them if that meaning is different for other people. An interesting question to ponder, for someone looking for a sense of community among the fans of these particular artists. But for those of us just interested in the music, I think the answer to that question is moot. At least it was for me -- I don't care if the meaning is different for others. That's what I think is great about Storyhill -- although the meaning may (and probably will) be different for everyone, everyone seems to find meaning in it somehow.

More soon. A little more about me maybe (since this is entitled Storyhill and Me).

4.11.03 1:00 pm

"He used to sing out with a doubt of the harmony..." The crowd always goes nuts on this line. I do, too. In fact, I think I was the first (and maybe only) one who whooped at the St. Olaf concert last weekend.

It's one of the few self-reflective lyrics they ever sing. Which is also strange, considering Chris didn't write it for Storyhill, but for Sixth Sense, his first project after Storyhill broke up in 1997. And in that, it's original version, Chris sings the melody all by his lonesome. But now that Storyhill has adapted it (and pretty much claimed it as a new Storyhill song), the lyric has that wonderful text-painted sound that makes it so exciting to hear.

What is it about the harmony? How are two notes better than one? Or, rather, how are two voices -- two minds and two hearts -- better than one? The answer to this question can tell us a lot, perhaps -- why Storyhill was (and is) so popular compared to a solo Chris, why the bond forged over the fires of a lifetime spent living, learning and touring together eventually broke down... and maybe why that bond appears to be interweaving itself back together again.

The harmony is what makes Storyhill so powerful to me. The lyrics come in a very close second, but somehow there's a simpler and clearer beauty than is found in even their best poetry -- and that's in the harmonies. I listen and I love the lyrics -- but the harmonies haunt my mind, tug at my heart and seep into my soul. I marvel with almost every song how the feeling the lyrics portray is backed up so perfectly and beautifully by the ever-changing intervals and dissonance the harmony provides. What I Know has just a hint of tension at the tonal height of the chorus, and fades into gentle and caressing consonance -- carefully outlining the hint of wistfulness in the words. Stillwater's bright joy and optimism bursts through similarly bright harmony without a bit of foreboding. And Life To Live... oh my. Their voices, so reedy already, grind against each other almost to the point of physical pain.

And as the interaction between two notes changes as they do -- so does the interaction between two people. I can't imagine the kind of relationship that Chris and Johnny share. They spent the better part of a decade together, growing and perfecting their identities as musicians, as artists and as young adults. And two plants growing side-by-side can never grow straight... the harmony of these two was not always consonant. Nor should it be -- without the dissonance, their music would not be as beautiful as it is. It must keep changing.

Two-part harmony can be confining, though. The beauty of the song is inextricably tied to both voices. It's hard to escape. For this and other reasons, the harmony of Storyhill was silent for a good four years, while its individual voices found their own melodies on their own. I think that, although they were sad, Storyhill's fans understood why they needed to do this.

But there's something about the harmony...

Alva Star isn't gone. 2 Forms of ID isn't gone. But Storyhill has a new CD and are even touring. What are we to make of this? It's hard to say. But I look at the Peppermint CDs website, and I don't think it's a coincidence that Storyhill is the only duo there -- and arguably Peppermint's most popular artist.

The Chris and Johnny I heard last weekend are on a consanant line -- maybe the most consanant they've been in a while. While it's not my place to guess the reason or even speculate, I can be excited about it and hope that it continues for a while. And that more of the wonderful harmony we love results.

4.7.03 10:30 pm

When I see Storyhill live, a strange and wonderful illusion seems to occur.

I get the feeling that the music I'm hearing isn't actually coming from Chris and Johnny, but rather from somewhere else -- somewhere higher or farther away somehow -- and they are merely channelling this sound.

Mostly Johnny is the cause of this. When he's "into it" (which is a lot of the time), he twitches and twists arrhymically around the microphone. No part of him remains the same distance from it, except for his mouth. His eyes are closed, his chin-length hair is flying every which way, and his voice is high -- it always sounds impossibly high even though it's really not. He appears to be barely in control of the sound that's rushing, flowing, exploding from him and his guitar.

And I hear it mix with the sound coming from three feet away, but a world away. Chris' eyes are closed too, and he's also playing the guitar, but that's where the similarities end. He's moving perfectly on the beat -- a gentle up-and-down, his left foot keeping the beat along with his strumming arm. He is the picture of a seasoned live performer, beside Johnny's jerky breakdance.

But oddly, the illusion is not diminished in the least by the contrast. Chris is as possessed as Johnny -- his head moving side to side, and the perfect harmony line finds its way out the corner of his mouth and matches Johnny's melody note for note, in tone, volume and emotional intensity.

How is it always perfect? Okay, well, it isn't always perfect. But they sure sing it like it is.

More soon.