Letters of Note

A fascinating new site devoted to letters, notes and other correspondence of historical or cultural significance. Initial entries include a letter from FDR to the commissioner of baseball, the Lindbergh ransom note and an achingly beautiful note written by Churchill, to be delivered to his wife in the event of his death.

Letters of Note

What Songs Are Meant To Do

You may not know it, but you’ve probably already heard a Chris Trapper song. Though the Boston-based songwriter hasn’t become a nationwide household name, the sophisticated simplicity of his tunes has earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of best songwriters currently working in the craft. And that reputation has brought with it one opportunity after another for his music to be featured in films and television.

Trapper’s music has been a backdrop for daytime dramas, teen dramedies and even a reality dating show. His songs have also been featured on the soundtracks for feature films “There’s Something About Mary,” (“Everything Shines”) “August Rush” (“This Time”) and more.

And, while his songs are wonderful complements to big screen stories, the most striking thing about Trapper’s music is the completeness of each song in its own right. Every song tells a story, and the narrative landscape of each song is replete with richly drawn characters who come alive as the song’s story unfolds.

I was introduced to Trapper’s music by friends when I was living in Rochester, N.Y. I met his music in the context of his former group, The Push Stars. I actually saw The Push Stars once, in Buffalo, during what I believe was their final tour together. I was drawn to the songs I heard that night both for the power of the performance and the emotional intensity of the words and melodies; the music that seemed to paint a world for the characters and stories to inhabit.

I was hooked on Trapper’s songwriting.

The songs I heard when I first dropped one of Trapper’s discs into my player weren’t just tightly crafted pop nuggets (though Trapper’s mastery of his craft approaches perfection); nor were they heady folk songs with something big and bold to say (though almost every tune leaves me reeling). It was the storytelling that wrapped me; that pulled me close and made me want to cry.

Trapper doesn’t take on the moniker of storyteller, though. “I don’t really see myself as anything but a songwriter, in the purest and most versatile form,” he says. “I can write uncomfortably personal songs, and songs for a bubbly WB television comedy, and feel equally rewarded when or if they take hold. I’d like to think what I write may have the power to transport at least a little bit, either through story, melody, or ideally, both.”

Perhaps the most striking thing about Trapper’s songs, both on the solo records and the songs he wrote for The Push Stars, is the characters. Even when a song is first person, there’s an engaging cast of characters that inhabit the world of the tune. Whether it’s the blue collar stoicism of the father in “House Next To The Drive-In,” (“Songs From The Drive-In,” 2002) the former lover in “Outside Of A Dream” (“Paint The Town,” 2006) or the “friends who were buried alive” in “Cadillac,” (“After The Party,” 1999) there is always subtle detail that makes the world, the characters come alive.

Trapper credits his eye for character to his childhood as a member of a large family, and also to a well-honed ability to observe and report – a key skill for an artist in any discipline.

“I suppose some of the cross characterization comes from just listening to people,” says Trapper. “I am the youngest of six siblings, so it was virtually impossible for me to get out of the twelfth grade without already knowing some pretty intense stories. But like many songwriters, i’d say the power is in observation, and the ability to connect the pen to the paper when the time is right, so to speak.”

And that laser-perfect observation has to turn inward from time to time as well. Trapper: “The other important thing I think is just making a commitment to reveal yourself, and in an honest way. If it’s anything less, it’s a waste of time for all involved.”

As I write this, I’m listening to “Paint The Town.” I’m five songs in, and I’ve already been on an emotional journey through the disquieting reality of balancing relationships with life on the road (“Claire”); the longing and suspense of wondering what happened to a former life, a former lover and the friends we once knew (“Outside Of A Dream”); a hymn to life, and the wonder of love, the universe and everything (“Galaxy”); and an almost defiant statement of survival in a world full of chaos (“Lucky Sevens”).

“Freedom,” “Paint The Town” and “Keg On My Coffin” are coming up before long, and I know I’ll be transported to a world of blue collar simplicity and the sheer joy of family and friends.

As I listen I can’t help but consider the Chris Trapper catalog and think of the way his songs are explorations of a vast emotional landscape. They encompass so much of everyday life, and tend to track somewhere between pathos and joy, sometimes hovering near the edge of each; one thing I never hear in a Chris Trapper tune is cynicism. Reading between the lines on some tunes, I get the sense he could take a cynical point of view as he comments and reflects on the life around him.

Trapper agrees. And he sees music as a shield against the cynicism that waits just below the surface of our life, waiting to take an mile for every inch it gains.

“Music has always been an escape from cynicism for me,” he reflects. “I can definitely lean that direction in my daily life, but it is very difficult for me to strum a guitar and feel hopeless.

“It just doesn’t add up that way to me. There’s too much mystery and magic in it. To fill a room that was quiet with strumming from your fingers, and the shapes they make seems like the opposite of cynicism,” he continues.

“Also, the fact that I’ve been very lucky to have a career totally self-steered yet successful enough to make a living for 12 years now is unbelievable to me. In fact, it blows my mind. And I never forget that music was my initial escape from a lot of pain and sadness, so I never take it for granted.”

I find Trapper’s melodies, instrumentation and arrangements complement the “story-line” of each of his songs; sometimes it even seems like the music is a “character” in the narrative arc the song takes. Melodically, his tunes havea a very defined pop sensibility. Yet, especially in the solo albums, I hear a lot of jazz, Texas swing and traditional folk melodic turns.

It’s no accident that so many influences co-exist in the Chris Trapper musical universe. He listens broadly and lets his obsessions guide him when choosing what goes into heavy rotation.

“I listen to my obsessions mostly. For a few years, it was Cuban music. I have no idea why, but I heard a song I liked in the movie “Before Night Falls” and I went out and bought every Cuban record I could find, from thrift stores, Amazon.com to Amoeba Music store on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles, all I cared about was Cuban music. And there is always a pretty wide variety going on beneath that, and I love a lot of styles.”

Ironically, Trapper isn’t a huge fan of his own space in the musical spectrum. “Probably the style I like the least is the one I do,” he says, “because it seems over-saturated to me. My newest obsession has been a songwriter from San Diego named Gregory Page, because he fearlessly will jump styles within his records. From 1930s style French romantic music, to classic rock.”

Because Trapper’s tunes feel so complete, I wondered about his process. The perfect pairing of lyric, melody and accompaniment piqued my interest. What was the process like? How did these songs come into being?

“I’ve been writing songs now for many years, and the process, as I allow it, must be natural,” Trapper says. “If I were to analyze everything I wrote, I’d probably throw it all away in it’s imperfection. In other words, I suppose I want a certain simple magic in the process, and if that doesn’t happen, I’d probably try another craft.

“I usually save the lyrics as the last piece of the puzzle, because they are the substance of the song. It requires successfully bonding the words to the emotion in the music, provided there is some.”

He goes on: “When I was first learning songwriting, I would take poems that my friend had written, and try to provide a compatible chord and melody structure to give birth from lyric to song. Now I’ll play some chords, or have a melody saved on some 1980’s micro-cassette player, and I’ll try and turn that into a song. But it was helpful to learn backwards, because you see how the music and lyric are intertwined.”

One of Trapper’s recent efforts, “Songs From The Middle Of The World” (2008), is a collection of (mostly) solo acoustic songs. It almost feels like a journal or sketch book, not in the sense that it feels unfinished, but it in the sense that it’s a very intimate collection of songs that seem personal and reflective. Musically, it’s a very cohesive album, stripped and simple.

“Songs from the middle of the World was kind of an accident,” Trapper says. “I was getting uncomfortable cause I hadn’t released any new music, and when you’re in the music business awhile, you fear, sometimes irrationally, that your audience is going to just disappear, or move on to Michael Bolton or something.

“I had all these demos that I was trying to decide if I should record in a produced fashion or not,” he continues, “and I started feeling like they made sense as a collection as they were. One of my favorite records is called “North Marine Drive” by Ben Watt (half of Everything But the Girl) and I love it because you can’t tell where or when the songs were recorded, or what they were meant to be in the grand scheme of things, but you feel that every breath in the vocal is sincere, and the music’s simplicity transports you. I wanted to replicate that.”

There’s no doubt that Trapper loves his craft. He jokes about why he got into songwriting: “Songwriting enabled me to meet cool people, see cool places, and talk to cute girls.”

But then he reflects on the real joy of making songs: “I’ve been able to communicate what’s in my soul to people all over the country, and now, in certain circumstances, the world. This, for me, is a huge privilege, and I wouldn’t give it up for all the money in the world.”

Trapper’s songwriting is compelling for many reasons. Technically, his songs are nearly perfect; they’re complete and sophisticated, but, at the same time, simple and engaging. Lyrically, they’re like novellas set to a tune; they draw a world, peopled with fascinating characters and filled with a sense of adventure. But none of that explains why I connect so deeply with Trapper’s tunes.

Trapper’s songs do what songs are meant to do. In the intimacy, the soul-sharing moment of a song’s final, lingering breath, a listener can find solace and feel the peace of having said what needed to be said. A great song and a great songwriter speaks for the listener, not just to him.

This item originally appeared in the The Daily Times.

What songs are meant to do

You may not know it, but you’ve probably already heard a Chris Trapper song. Though the Boston-based songwriter hasn’t become a nationwide household name, the sophisticated simplicity of his tunes has earned him a well-deserved reputation as one of best songwriters currently working in the craft. And that reputation has brought with it one opportunity after another for his music to be featured in films and television.

Continue reading “What songs are meant to do”

Ars Poetica

When I first started writing, it was for the sheer joy and mystery of it all. It was just downright amazing to me that I could think up anything I wanted and then make it, well, make it real just by writing it down. I got hooked.

I think always knew I wanted to write and play music. I was trying to make music when I was in diapers; I’d bang on pots, pans, my momma’s lampshades – anything that made sound was fair game.

I used to not pay attention to my school work so I could write songs. Even before I played an instrument I was writing down lyrics and singing melodies as they popped into my head. Somewhere in the stacks of my childhood is my first album, sung a cappella and recorded in glorious one track mono on my Radio Shack cassette player.

Those were the days.

Continue reading “Ars Poetica”

Comics that go further

This is a fascinating list of graphic novels that go beyond the bounds of the genre. I’m reading Preacher right now; I’m on volume five of nine and I can’t get enough of this strange and wonderful story that is better than just about any action movie I’ve seen recently. It’s the kind of fun that leaves you breathless and thinking.

I’ve always liked good genre writing, and comics are no exception. And these books prove the rule that good genre writing is universal in it’s appeal. In fact, the best genre writing transcends whatever pigeonhole it may be assigned to and tells us something about the human condition.

And there’s a word for that: Art.

20 Comics That Can Change Your Life by the Nerve staff – Nerve.com.

The Year in Music: 2008

I think it’s safe to say 2008 is the year Rock came back.

On November 23, Axl Rose finally put a period at the end of what was arguably the biggest story in music. Guns N’ Roses “new” album (does it qualify as a “new release” if it takes the better part of two decades to produce?) hit the streets.

Chinese Democracy was so anticipated that Dr. Pepper gave everyone in America (except Slash) a free drink to celebrate the album’s release. Of course, because Dr. Pepper chose to get involved with Axl Rose, they’re now on the receiving end of the opening salvo of a legal battle.

It doesn’t get much more Rock and Roll than that.

But what’s more interesting to me is the incredible string of albums that led up to the release of Democracy. It seems as if the entire pantheon of rock legends decided to drop a record in ’08. And every one of those albums amounted to little more than an opening act for Rose’s record.

We had new albums from White Lion, Whitesnake, Judas Priest, Alice Cooper (ALICE COOPER!) and Motley Crue. Rush put out a live record and Faith No More gave us a greatest hits compilation. AC/DC got in bed with Wal-Mart and released Black Ice in an exclusive arrangement with the worlds largest retailer – save yourself twelve bucks and dig through your closet for your original vinyl copy of Back in Black.

And non-rock acts got in on the action too. New Kids on the Block got back together for The Block. I wonder how many 35 year old women ran out to buy this the day it was released. They were probably all screaming “Donnie!” too. An even more surprising re-appearance was Vanilla Ice, turning in the aptly titled “Vanilla Ice is Back,” which I didn’t bother to listen to.

A quartet of albums brought us all back to the Reagan years. The Cure, The Breeders and Bauhaus all put out new collections, while Morrisey dropped a greatest hits retrospective. Not a bad year for ’80s Death Rock fans.

This year gave us more than just new releases by old faces though. A lot of albums by younger artists were released in 2008 as well.

It seems Panic At the Disco spent every waking moment since the release of their first album listening to Sgt. Peppers Lonley Hearts Club Band and renaissance music. Then they somehow digested that into the really-quite-wonderful Pretty. Odd. which was released early in 2008. Fall Out Boy bracketed the year with its own new release: Folie à Deux. These records are a little softer edged than either band’s earlier releases; but both are infinitely listenable – and some tracks are, honestly, just about perfect (like this one).

On the Pop/Rock front, December was very good to us. In addition to the Fall Out Boy release, we got a new album from the All-American Rejects. And nobody does this genre like the Rejects. Nobody. When the World Comes Down is a solid record from start to finish.

Actress Scarlett Johansson released a truly weird record. Anywhere I Lay My Head is an album of (mostly) Tom Waits cover songs sung by Johansson as a sub-alto, bizarro-universe Annie Lennox. Her voice is actually more grating than Waits’, if you can imagine that. But fans of Waits may enjoy these interpretations. And there’s a chance that Johansson’s stylings may be an acquired taste, though I very much doubt this is true.

Both Jason Mraz and Gavin DeGraw put out new pop music buffets. You can say what you want about the ability or sentiment of artists like Mraz and Degraw, but you can’t deny that, sometimes, a little sugar coated pop nugget is just what the doctor ordered. I defy you to listen to I Have You to Thank(from DeGraw’s self-titled sophomore outing) and not bop your head and smile for a minute or two.

Britney Spears put out a record. It was called Circus. You make your own joke here.

In the world of Rap, there were several new releases that I paid absolutely no attention to. Snoop Dogg dropped Ego Trippin’ (ya think?) and was completely upstaged by Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III. Lil Wayne is currently the best rapper out there, period.

“But wait!” I hear you saying. “What about Kanye West? He put out a new record this year too.”

I know. And I listened to it. And it’s a wonderful record. 808s & Heartbreak is one of the best records of the year. But it’s not a Rap album. 808s is a gorgeous piece of Pop Art that refutes genre definitions. I don’t think I’ve ever heard an artist do as a good a job of setting a mood from track one and keeping it consistent for every track on the disc. By the end of the record, you kinda feel like you got punched in the gut.

And, while we’re on the subject of Rap albums that defy genre, I have to mention M.I.A. Kala was re-released this year. And this record is the finest blend of Hip Hop, Techno and World Music that I’ve heard.

Girl Talk put out Feed The Animals as a follow-up to The Night Ripper and It Feels Like This. It’s worth a listen for the novelty if nothing else. The record features songs you know and love cut up and mashed up with original music and Hip Hop cuts from various artists.  The New York Times Magazine got it right when they called Girl Talk’s music “a lawsuit waiting to happen.”

Red of Tooth and Claw was released this year by Bloomington, Indiana Indie/Post-punk quartet Murder By Death. This collection of songs is spookier than a zombie movie. Lead singer/guitarist Adam Turla sounds like the ghost of Johnny Cash in a street fight with Roy Orbison.

Ryan Adams and his new band The Cardinals gave us Cardinology in 2008. This record is every bit as wonderful as I’ve come to expect from Adams and company. Cardinology seems to be a delivery on Adam’s claim that he is primarily influenced by classic rock. This disc shows that influence and is an instant classic in it’s own right.

If quirky pop is your thing, a trio of releases this year should make you pretty happy. Vampire Weekend’s self-titled outing and Skeletal Lamping by of Montreal are both excellent releases with interesting melodic twists and subject matter that hops between the ethereal and mundane. There are moments when both bands seem to be weird for its own sake, but these moments are well-balanced with great tunes that give the listener a quick pop pick-me-up while retaining a quirky and charming self-consciousness.

Rounding out our quirk-pop trio is the latest offering from Death Cab for Cutie. Narrow Stairs is a wonderful collection of easy-to-listen-to tracks that offer new bits of ear candy on repeated listens. There’s no shortage of gems, but Your New Twin Sized Bed is one of the best songs of this year, bar none.

Finally, here are my top five album picks for 2008.

5.) A Tie! Panic at the Disco – Pretty. Odd. AND Fall Out Boy – Folie à Deux
4.) Kanye West – 808s & Heartbreak
3.) Murder by Death – Red of Tooth and Claw
2.) Death Cab for Cutie – Narrow Stairs
1.) Ryan Adams and the Cardinals – Cardinology