Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Balmorhea: All Is Wild, All Is Silent

I'm always amazed when I come across underground music that is full of cheer and grace. It's not that it's all dark, but we live in a time when so much of the sound from the margins is glum to the point of parody, or else awash on so much noise as to create only a kind of hypnotic nervousness in the listener. Those moments of hope or optimism become even more powerful when only with the most intense concentration on the music can they be heard. But what happens when it's the moments of melancholic reflection that are the exceptions in a field of joy and wonder?

Balmorhea, a six-piece instrumental outfit from Austin, Texas who share a label with Here We Go Magic and Dirty Projectors among others, embrace a kind of two steps forward, one step back view of the world. (I am reminded of the idea that we should "not regret the past, nor wish to shut the door on it.") It's about making plans even though you have no idea how it will turn out, planting despite the forecast, loving with no guarantee of love being returned. It's about realism that is fed by dreams, and light that can only be seen when it makes shadows.

In almost all the great myths, there is a story of descent, of walking into the underworld before the real transformation can begin. But this idea has become corrupted by the idea of a hell without end, of eternal damnation. In the stories before, the hero always returns, sometimes a little bit worse for the wear, but never without knowledge, and never without the stuff one needs to keep going. Orpheus descends into Hades playing music.

It's hard to pretend to some kind of muscial criticism when something like Balmorhea touches me so deeply. Even during those moments when I'm waiting for something more, I'm rewarded with a whole catalogue of musical touchstones. Even the plucking on the neck of a fiddle changes everything. They mean it. Every strum, every slide of the bow, every ghostlike voice in the background. There is nothing contrived here, although it must take quite a bit of arranging and intent to do what they are doing. I would love to see them live, to see how they take to improvising. There is a sense that individually each musician lets go in their way, but only long enough to stretch out the possible.

This is a group of people I imagine one would be blessed to call their friends.

--Balmorhea: Coahuila
--Balmorhea: Harm and Boon

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