Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy: Wayword

Wayword hymn

The media in Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy’s message

I just finished reading Kristin Hersh’s memoir about her time with Vic Chesnutt. It’s a book that’s odd for lots of reasons — it’s written in the second person, it has virtually no linear chronological flow, it circles around to nostalgia like a pinwheel— but worth reading for getting to know Chesnutt a little bit beyond what everyone who knows him knows: Michael Stipe discovered him. He was paralyzed in a car accident at 18. He killed himself with pills.

What becomes clear is that he felt everything like crazy, maybe as a result of having almost zero actual physical sensation following the accident. Most of his tunes are stripped down, not particularly involved, and his voice really isn’t all that special. But, Jesus. The guy knew how to share his pain. And how to share yours.

A contemporary existentialist, he saw the absurdity of existence clearly and wasn’t particularly interested in participating in it, regardless of Hersh’s arguments that all you’ve got to do is see the sweetness in life and take it where you find it. Because why not?

Because fuck you, that’s why.

The other side of Chesnutt’s coin is Garrett Soucy, of Tree by Leaf and more. I know, I know: But Soucy is a minister! Or a pastor, I guess. Or whatever. I’m never really clear on what all the titles mean. Regardless, his music is to his faith as Chesnutt’s is to his atheism.

Who knows why one guy picks one belief system over another, but it’s all just a way of making sense of the world. Don’t people pick God mostly because they’re terrified of the alternative? Don’t the best artists create music because they don’t feel like they have a choice in the matter?

Isn’t free will for some the ultimate indictment of life itself? If we can choose anything, why would we choose anything?

Garrett, with wife Siiri, and Chesnutt are the kinds of musicians who ask these questions of their audience over and over again.

For the newest record, now recording under Mr. and Mrs. Garrett Soucy, Soucy has been inspired by the works of Marshall McLuhan, one of the original media commentators, an explorer of the meanings of pop culture, and himself someone who found Catholicism later in life and explored it deeply. And so Wayword is filled with works like “The Medium is the Messiah,” which plays on McLuhan’s famous declaration that the medium is the message and takes it a step further.

“More than Atlas, trying to hunch beneath the boulder,” Garrett sings, lower in his register and over a shuffling acoustic guitar and not much else. “More than a stoic/ Who hides the thing he wants to say/ More than the market/ Closing in a coup de grace.”

In fact, “everything is broken.”

About“Anachronistic Progress” opens just as spare, but then quickly brings in a bleeding organ and a light snare and bass to fill things out as Soucy lays society low: “Man was not meant to live at the speed of light … If it works, it’s obsolete … If it takes away the pain, it makes the message go away.”

Damn if that doesn’t sound like the truth. “We’re dying for love” and “thirsting for water.”

Siiri is a ghostly presence on the album, with no lead vocals, just an echo of what Garrett is doing, an augmentation, an icy breath. She’s most present on the intimate “To Read Is To Guess,” a whispered thing that often seems just on the cusp of halting altogether.

“It’s a perilous task to respond when asked,” they croon, with what sounds like a commentary on our reactionary social media culture. “In speech or in print/ The word in its mind/ Let there be light.”

You know what James Thurber said about light, right? There is the kind that illuminates and that which obscures. What the Soucys do is undoubtedly a glow.

It wouldn’t work without the fun part, though. “Ladies or Gentlemen” is just the sort of forward-leaning, percussive piece that always kept Tree by Leaf from being just another singer-songwriter piece of literature. There’s got to be something to nod your head to if you want the record to resonate, and this delivers, with a heavy strum like the verve of “Rupert Sheldrake’s Favorite Girl.” It stutters, with a two-beat emphasis, and tells a story like Dylan’s done late career with “Highlands” or “Not Dark Yet”: “It’s consummation or masturbation.”


Maybe most striking, though, is the societal indictment of “Living Conformists and Dead Troublemakers,” which ought to make you at least think about your priorities. “I ain’t happy that the price of gas is falling/ I ain’t heartbroke over whoever lost the game,” Garrett offers, “I ain’t buying clothes from anyone who’s album won a grammy/ I ain’t a hater of the player, just the plan.”

It’s a sing-songy kind of children’s tune, where the rhyme fits the melody perfectly, and the pacing goes at exactly the pace it needs to go at, takes its time, which makes it all the more striking. Why don’t we question our priorities more often? Why is it so easy to get along to get along?

For Garrett, “In Christ Is Where the East Meets West,” with a melody strangely reminiscent of “Don’t They Know It’s Christmas Time at Home.” It’s fitting, I guess, if you’re gong to be talking about the holy ghost and what not. I mean, God and Santa are equally real to me. They’re real enough if you believe in them and anything they get done you’ve got to do yourself.

Soucy, like Chesnutt before him, and the best of songwriters, makes us question the reality we’ve constructed for ourselves. Chesnutt did the examining and didn’t find a reason to continue on. Soucy’s examination might make you wonder what the point is, exactly, of continuing, but maybe the point is in the examination itself.

Tree By Leaf: Amen and Amen

Postcard from Belfast

Tree by Leaf return, and depart, with Amen & Amen

Maybe it’s fitting, considering the supernatural nature of much of their lyrics, that Tree by Leaf’s newest album seems to have dropped from the heavens. With no fair warning, the band that put out two of the best albums of the mid-2000s have this week posted their first in five years, Amen & Amen, to Bandcamp, a full-length that can be had for a measly $5. Unfortunately, it’s also their swan song. [*This was written in April 2011. It turns out Garrett and Siiri weren’t close to done. I should have known better.]

Consider that bad news, but also the deal of the week. Everything that has captivated many of us — Garrett Soucy’s literary and haunting lyrics, Siiri Soucy’s powerful harmonies and lead vocals, their simmering way of recording songs — is still in place, now a decade in, and the new 10-track album sounds like a band that have never missed a beat, even if they’ve been largely absent from the public eye lately, and have now disbanded.

It makes their opening track, “Once I’ve Seen Paris,” seem ironic, actually. The band seem to enjoy playing up their Downeast, out-of-the-way backstory. Belfast is just a little backwater, right? Garrett’s twangy lilt was built to pronounce “Paris” like “Pair-eee.” But how did this band go back to the farm once they saw a little bit of the bright lights of those who fell in love with their music?

Perhaps it’s because they really do serve a higher power. Christian imagery has always been infused in their lyrics — a questioning and probing tone, mostly — but they’ve also recorded an album of devotionals and this new album is probably their most overt effort that’s targeted for general release.

“Yours is the kingdom,” they sing on this opening track, “yours is the power/ Yours is the only glory.” But the way they capture low-end acoustic guitar, resonant and guttural, and the effect on the vocals, like they’re singing by themselves in an empty Superdome, is just so perfectly matched to the subject matter that you never feel you’re being preached to.

On the contrary, the album drives with the force of true believers who simply can’t help themselves, a forward motion with inertia that’s undeniable even on the slowest of tracks. This is at least partly the work of Eric Sanders, whose percussion tends to be heavy on a brushed snare that lends songs the sound of a rippling static energy. The counterpoint is the organ work of Cliff Young, which both grounds that energy and recalls the pipe organs of country churches all over New England.

On “Counting Coup,” that organ gets downright jaunty, with poppy Siiri fronting vocals, like one of those gal-fronted songs on a Belle and Sebastian record: “It’s the same little clock/ That will one day stop/ When love comes along/ And takes me home/ You can’t run fast enough/ To beat me son.” The closing “Good Shepard” (yes, spelled that way) isn’t quite as vampy, but it’s close. And both tunes feature a second harmony track from Siiri late in the song that is piercing in its directness (or maybe that piercing quality comes from a bad mix job — it’s kind of hard to tell).

Still, Tree by Leaf for me were always best when doing the least. With their gold-plated earnestness, they don’t need a lot of dressing up to look their best. Thus, the naked fingerpicking of “M-set,” where you can hear every bit of Garrett’s delivery, like he’s whispering in your ear, is the standout here.

“When the moon has eaten, all she can tonight,” he breathes in layers, “scattering her crumbs of light across the sky/ I will turn the bed down/ I will breathe a sigh/ And if we know our placement, then we know our time.”

“Wonder Worker” opens similarly, a call out to Tree by Leaf’s outstanding “Cold Norwegian Tile,” but quickens its pace with a subtle percussion and quick-sung vocals from the Soucys in their best vocal pairing (which is saying something). The chorus here is a soaring “ahhh-ahhh,” like a primal expression of spiritual ecstasy. I guess there could be “Christian music” this good, but I don’t know where to hear it. And it would be a crime if Tree by Leaf were ever pigeonholed that way.

“I am able to be evil,” Garrett assures us, “but he’s weeding me out.”

No, really, they can do evil. “Mega Meta Utopia” is downright vicious: “I know how to cut you open with the flat edge of a dime.” The best thing about Tree by Leaf’s understanding of faith is their acknowledgment that the real world is often a dirty and uncaring place. To aspire to a “mega meta utopia” is to lead people astray. The way they take “hallelujah” in this song and twist it, as if to mock those who throw it out so casually, might be the best thing on this album.

Amen & Amen is the anti-bubblegum. You need to be willing to invest yourself in it. The return, however, is significant.