The Yak Laughs Last
Beautiful Sleepyhead and the Laughing Yaks is a dream in fourteen acts, a modern Shakespearean festival with soundtrack. It didn't begin that way, but life is a strange partner and when Emily Wells first created and then began assembling the music, it took its own journey. From the first notes of act one (Mt. Washington), it slipped through Wells' fingers and onto the keyboard of a slightly out of tune piano and taut strings of a banjo and tuned metal bars of a metalophone and myriad of instruments, eventually shaping and reshaping itself until the yaks laughed.
The process, though exciting, could not have been pretty. Like the mad alchemist, Wells had to have tossed everything she had into the cauldron--- sometimes boiling, sometimes frying--- in the search for that elusive combination which creates gold. Everything, indeed. A look at the insert lists a plethora of instruments played (the vast majority by herself), a list which contains all but the kitchen sink (which could easily have been utilized but left on the cutting room floor--- perhaps an alternate take will surface years from now). Guitar, of course--- she plays acoustic, electric and classical. Synthesizers (meaning more than one). Violin(s), which at the appropriate moments she turns into the Wells Chamber Orchestra. Piano (where she got it is a wonder, sounding like an old broken down standup found in the basement of a crumbling church and just so very slightly out of tune but absolutely perfect for this project). Hammond organ (to some ears, B-3 is all too rare). Then it gets a bit strange. Neighborhood samples--- one can imagine Wells creeping stealthily around her hood, small cassette deck in hand. Banjo, and just for good measure, banjo mandolin (now, that is either genius or madness, wouldn't you say?). Bells. Glockenspiel (to give that marching band feel maybe?--- not even close). And just to throw certain know-it-alls off, metalophone. Don't ask me. I thought I knew musical instruments. Guess not.
With a hundred instruments played in a thousand ways, Wells needed a grounding force. Luckily, bassist Joey Reina and percussionist Sam Halterman ambled in off the streets, drawn by the smell of musical alchemy. Yes, creativity has its own smell and both, ravenous amidst the stew of the average, sat down for a bowl or two, bringing cauldron to full boil. And in the end.....
There's something in the stone... Of the fourteen acts, the best barely made the cut. Wells struggled with the voice on Oh My God I Miss You, needing them perfect--- needing them to be exactly what she heard in her head and heart. She interpreted and reinterpreted and phrased and rephrased until it slowly fell into place and was good enough for inclusion. Inspired by a Yoshi Nara painting, the song is reflection of one of many sides of Emily Wells. Gathering her inner forces, Wells reaches deep and squeezes until there is almost... almost... an answer. ...singing to an empty heaven... is not at all what Oh My God I Miss You is about, but the phrase strikes a note nonetheless. Wells peppers her creations with such lines and phrases and changes rhythms and moods at will. There is no taking her for granted--- not if you really want to hear the music.
Blood running out... like a funeral... The chorus of Fountain of Youth will be the first thing some listeners latch on to and for good reason. The simple technique of dubbing voices one octave apart sweetens the already captivating melody and is superb overlay for funereal organ and the lightest touch on electric rhythm guitar and brush percussion. The glockenspiel adds volumes to the ending (and maybe that light plucking sound is the elusive metalophone). If the industry needed a single from this album, this is it.
I've got a car and it's made of tin and nobody knows what shape it's in but I'd like to take you... for a ride... From car to love is a not especially huge jump when Wells takes it on. Phrasing makes all the difference as she questions love in an almost little girl voice, pain oozing over the piano keys until the end when chamber orchestra creates ballroom.
...the smell of death is everywhere... Wells takes her freedom seriously (as do we all). Take what you will from View From a Blind Eye, there is a hint that not all is well in Mudville and it is more than mighty Casey striking out. Phrase after phrase drops between the lines meanings, enough to drive any Conservative mad, or at least the “ends justifies the means” contingent. Wells composes as she lives--- carefully placing word next to word until some semblance takes shape--- and if not sense, at least a breakdown of the nonsense.
...the sky, it's like a drug... Like a scene from an old Marlene Dietrich movie, Waltz of the Dearly Beloved opens in stark black and white, harsh light softened at just the right times with gypsy violins and, again, that slightly out of tune piano. Perhaps it is not the tuning but the pedals... there is something eerily evocative and yet indecipherable. Not the most adventurous act in the play, but that sound.....
There is something in Wells' music that speaks to the head as well as the heart. It occasionally drives a fist to the gut and leaves you breathless, a high which to the music junkie is an endorphine rush. It also makes you scratch your head and roll your eyes and, once in awhile, nod your head. The really good moments, though, make you laugh and there you are, amongst the yaks, which you find is not at all an unpleasant place to be.
Emily Wells is where she is because that is where she wants to be--- at the moment, at least. A number of years ago, major labels courted her. Young but not so impulsive, Wells opted for musical freedom and has been working on her own since, with the help of the handful of talented musicians and artists drawn to her, that is. Beautiful Sleepyhead and the Laughing Yaks is only the latest in a series of albums and experiments, though it has to be an apex. There is way too much of Wells here for it to be a collaboration, though she is quick to point out the importance of Sam Halterman and Joey Reina, and when she recorded it, she had to know it would be a magnificent success or a miserable failure. More than likely, she was prepared for either, on all levels. But it is, indeed, a magnificent success--- one of those gems which will, in future years delight and charm those who are lucky enough to have discovered it. For others, there will be the thrill of stumbling across it in the heat of a musical safari and, oh man, won't it be the Yak head above the fireplace! Oh yeah!
And in case you're wondering, no yaks were harmed in either the making of the album or the writing of this critique. God forbid! The world needs all of the laughter it can get. Just ask the yaks.
Photo used by kind permission of Anne Carmack.
More Finds of the Future, Today:
SCOTT BOYER/Talks About the Capricorn Rhythm Section
CAPRICORN RHYTHM SECTION/Alive at 2nd Street Music Hall
GABRIELLE GEWIRTZ/Great Music, Wonderful Voice
GILEAH/Chaos of Love, Fury of Life (Breathtaking!)
THE GRIP WEEDS/Updated '60s-style psych pop of the best variety... a great album!
(Perry Jordan &) HEARTSFIELD/Guitars a-Blazin' Country Rock!
GREG LASWELL/Taking One For the Cause
JENN LINDSAY/This Is Your Brain on Power Pop
MAGGI, PIERCE & E.J./Dog Bites Band! (Phenomenal!!)
AUDREY MARTELL/Great Indie R&B, Pop!!
BILL PILLMORE/Cowboy Returns to the Saddle
JESS PILLMORE/Dancing On the Edge
STEVE YOUNG/Songlines-- A Fortuitous Return to the Past
Gems From the Past:
SETTING THE RECORD(s) STRAIGHT/Correcting Injustices of Rock Music's Past
SCOTT BOYER & THE DECOYS/All My Friends
CARGOE/From Tulsa to Memphis
CHRISTIAN ROCK/The Early Years
Ardent's JOHN FRY/A 1975 Interview
NOTARY SOJAC/A '70s Pacific Northwest Rock Legend
WHITE ELEPHANT/Jazz Had Hippies, Too!!!
STEVE YOUNG/Rock Alt. & Nails
More indies and rock history here.