Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter tells a story centered around the life of Buddy Bolden, the cornet player accredited with starting jazz. This dark and nebulous novel obscures what it makes clear. We become aware of the world of music to an artist whose every note seemed wrenched out of his soul.
Why is Buddy Bolden a great artist? No recordings exist of him. Rather it is the impetus behind his music, the way that he strove not for mimesis but for originality. The sweat-stained, dank, smelly world of New Orleans was his home. He did not question what he loved.
So what does this have to do with The Pines? This band originates from the endlessly flat Midwest, its stark cornfields and blue skies. The Midwest by many artists has been considered a place without identity. Poet Amy Clampitt wrote that it offered “no sense of inwardness.” And yet its bigness, its sense of possibility, has allowed for a sort of Midwestern Renaissance in recent years. The music ofThe Pines is no exception. They have developed their own sense of originality, rooted in their unquestioned need to love what they love.
Their music ties into something vast and ancient and haunting. One song references Orion aiming an arrow at “the heart of a scarecrow,” while another creates a sense of a mythical time blending with the contemporary with lines such as “Before I was born I could hear you calling my name.” “I buckle my shoes like a pilgrim,” sing frontmen Benson Ramsey and David Huckfelt, “and make my way to the highway.”
Clearly the stories of these songs are told in out-of-the-way places: people seem to fall in love in meadows as the great spirit rises over a cathedral, or in the silhouette of silos amidst wreathes of smoke. They might leave their lovers in the middle of night to pursue archetypes that could be considered Native American, such as the proverbial crow that encompasses the album’s first song.
This is an album you could fall asleep to as well as listen to during the most intense moments of your life. Its sense of quiet emergency encompasses both tender and violent melancholy. “I’m not asking for much, just your meadowsweet touch,” goes a song, and then, “My head’s in your branches, I’ve squandered my chances.”
This blend of indie, folk-rock, and Americana can excite a wide range of audiences. The rural backdrop of ghosts and slowly-disappearing farms creates a world where time doesn’t seem to exist, where we watch it slowly disappearing away from us like a vein. It creates a dream-like and yet authentic America, the America of Robert Frost’s poetry or of every other driver on the highway. You will listen to this music; you will fall in love.
For a while I thought that I had made them up in a dream. I first listened to “Cry, Cry, Crow” on an old dirt road in North Carolina driving sixty miles per hour. I hadn’t eaten in a while and I was so tired I was scared to blink for fear of driving off the road. Then the song ended and I was sure I had imagined it. It was that good.