Monday, August 30, 2010

The Only Sound that Matters (Band of Joy song of the week, No. 10 of 12)

Anybody who's only tangentially aware of Buddy Miller's hard-earned reputation as the go-to guy for musical assistance in Nashville might assume he grew up surrounded only by country music. That would be an incorrect assumption (Update: For more on this, check out this cover story from the Nashville Scene). Take, for instance, Miller's claim that he watched Led Zeppelin perform at the Fillmore East in New York on the band's first tour. Miller was there in the third row center, he says. He would have been 16 years old at the time, and half of Led Zeppelin was 20.

One of those 20-year-olds was Robert Plant, whose name unsurprisingly comes up in an interview with Miller published in the September 2010 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. The interviewer, Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, comments, "It's a revelation to hear Robert Plant sing so softly on Raising Sand," to which Miller replies, "I know, but he sang softly a lot back then -- you just don't think about it." Miller's right. Back then, Plant sang softly on songs like "Tangerine" and "That's the Way."

Those two particular songs were both on Led Zeppelin III, which isn't soft the whole way through. It starts off with the Viking wail on "Immigrant Song," which certainly is not the only heavy electric number on Side A. Fittingly enough for the album's 40th anniversary this October, Plant will have a new CD out that was inspired by reflecting on that disc. "I was thinking about Zeppelin III," he said recently. "I was thinking about the mixture of acoustic and powerful electric."

Of all the cover songs that made the final cut for the Band of Joy album, the lightest in its original form is "The Only Sound that Matters," from the 2003 album Westernaire by the band Milton Mapes. "It's certainly been a song that, from the Milton Mapes catalog, has resonated with a lot of people, and it's always been one of my favorites -- one of our favorites -- to play," says singer and guitarist Greg Vanderpool in an interview for Lemon Squeezings.
The song's understated arrangement features little more than a delicate acoustic guitar track, a double-tracked lead vocal with some cracking in places, and sparse electric guitar for effects. One of the vocal tracks on that version might be a "scratch vocal," meaning it's just as Vanderpool sang it while recording his guitar track. He explains that in the routine recording process, another vocal track is then recorded with the intent of replacing the scratch vocal. "Sometimes you end up replacing the scratch vocal with the finished one," he says, "and sometimes you leave all that in there because there's some interesting dynamic happening."

Left with the option to re-record, the band decided it wouldn't be necessary. "There's a magic in the recording that we put out," he says, confessing he wasn't sure at first. "I remember recording it and thinking that maybe it didn't feel like the take [to keep] or it felt like maybe there was room for improvement from a performance standpoint. But we all just listened to the recording, and there was just something there that, even with all the subtle nuances, we wanted to leave in there for the recording. And I'm glad we did because I think people who have heard the song have picked up on that even if they don't know what the song is necessarily about, and I think people can attach their own meaning to the song. And, hopefully, that's what happened when Robert heard the song."

Vanderpool, who now plays with a band called Monahans, does reveal that "The Only Sound that Matters" arrived out of his own personal experiences. "I wrote the song when I was living in Nashville," he explains. "I was spending a lot of time just really going out and hearing music almost every night and just soaking up everything I could. In a lot of ways, it was secondary education just because there are so many good players and writers in Nashville. Despite all the tacky stuff that Nashville can be known for, there's just a lot of really great players and writers there. So, I would go hear bands play all the time, and a lot of times by myself, and maybe drinking a little bit more than I should, in the constant, never-ending quest for some sort of musical fulfillment or gratification. So the song was really written after a night out listening to music."

Then, he volunteers, "The original title was 'Turn Up the Levels on Tift Merritt's Guitar.' I guess I was feeling a little hyper-focused on finding that ultimate sound or song or whatever. I guess if I had to summarize what the song is about, it's kind of like being out with alcohol. It's really talking about alcohol."

The 2003 album Westernaire was not available for purchase in MP3 format until June 18 of this year, shortly after "The Only Sound that Matters" was announced to be one of the songs on Robert Plant's Band of Joy. The Milton Mapes track is available from Amazon MP3 for $0.99, and Westernaire sells for only $8.99. The physical CD is available from Amazon for $9.99 with used copies currently running for less than $5.

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