-The Part About Lightning Dust-
Something about space and silence. Back in my zine-editor days, I remember interviewing Ted Leo, whose live setup at the time involved an electric guitar and very little else. We got to talking about Billy Bragg’s Back to Basics, and how that album — that sound, really — was defined in part by the aggressively lonely sound of an unaccompanied electrified six-string. It’s a powerful and memorable sound, one that’s as much about the notes and voice as it is about the overwhelming silence surrounding them. Alternately: it’s negative space as an aesthetic choice. It makes for an odd kind of genre, but a list of artists incorporating this element into their music would also include virtually everything Alison Statton has done, particularly Young Marble Giants and the first Weekend recordings; Antony and the Johnsons’ The Crying Light; and Lightning Dust.
Many of the songs on Lightning Dust’s debut, recorded by the duo of Amber Webber and Josh Wells, place Webber’s vocals at the center of deliberately minimal arrangements, sometimes just keyboard and drums. It’s effective, and it makes for haunting pop music; when the group increases the tempo, as on “Wind Me Up,” it’s a dramatic shift. The live version of the group on this tour expanded the lineup, with between four and five musicians onstage for their set; indications seem to be that the second Lightning Dust album, Infinite Light, will feature a fuller sound as well. That said, the core of their sound was definitely present, and given Webber’s distinctive voice, it would be difficult for it not to be. (Much of what I wrote towards the end of the first paragraph could also apply to the Black Mountain songs on which Webber handles lead vocals — “Heart of Snow” especially comes to mind.)
The other class I’d tend to group Lightning Dust in is a relatively arbitrary one. This month, many of the sets that have stood out to me didn’t necessarily do so by way of virtuosic playing, but rather via a striking, idiosyncratic take on pop: Ringfinger, earlier in the month; also, Angel Deradoorian’s group Deradoorian. Given the repeated blurring of stylistic lines between pop icons and more underground-oriented artists, it’s a fine thing to still hear music that’s both undeniably pop and undeniably hailing from the outsider camp.
-The Part About Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy-
Continuing in the theme of seeing musicians whose work I’ve long admired but whose live set I’ve never taken in: Will Oldham, here playing as part of a five- and six-piece group whose sound veered from style to style, from garage traditionals to Rolling Thunder Revue-era Dylan to something not unlike mid-70s Van Morrison in its compounding of soul and country, tautly played. What struck me the most about seeing Oldham sing was his vocal control: he would lean into the microphone, sometimes from the side, and sing out some pained sentiment with precision. The vocal tradeoffs with Cheyenne Mize, who also handled fiddle duties for the night, were arguably the high point of the night, and it didn’t hurt that much of the set list came from The Letting Go, probably my favorite work in Oldham’s impressive discography.
A high point implies its opposite, however, and as much as the set’s best moments moved me, there were also a few points in which the trio of voice, upright bass, and drums ventured too deeply into restraint. Alternately: I distinctly remember wondering, “Wait — does this mean the next Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy album is going to bear a significant Quiet Storm influence?” more than once over the course of the set. That said, “Cursed Sleep” pushed and pulled and wrenched in all the right ways, and the band left the stage pre-encore following a hushed, moving take on “I Called You Back.” Listening to it delivered plaintively by Oldham and echoed by Mize, it seemed reborn as a beautiful ode to both fidelity and resignation. And the way that its actual meaning subverts the seeming triviality of its title into something both miraculous and mundane is both bittersweet sting and revelation on each listen.