Sunday, April 12, 2009

David Wilcox - Open Hand


“... If I spoke as loud as rolling thunder
Another war could start
So I speak in silent sacred wonder
Straight into the heart”
-from Vow of Silence

Although David Wilcox was talking about something else, I can’t think of a better description of his singing and his overall approach to making music. Wilcox is a master of subtlety who gives each song exactly what it needs. And his work has all the more emotional resonance because of this.

Open Hand, after all these years, is Wilcox’ first album on his own label. So it sounds just the way he wants. There is a contrast between the slower, mostly acoustic numbers, and the up tempo numbers, which tend to have arrangements that are closer to rock. But, throughout, Wilcox’ acoustic guitar is the featured instrument. He uses a variety of tunings, and the guitar usually sets up the rhythm of the song as well. He is not flashy, but Wilcox can get a full range of moods from his playing. Wilcox is supported by electric or stand-up bass, drums on some tracks, and mostly subtle electric guitar and keyboard parts. That strange sound you here on the chorus of Modern World is a musical saw.

Wilcox has a very smooth singing voice, which he is able to modulate to serve the song. So while he sings most of the songs here in the high end of his vocal range, (but without ever forcing it), for How Long he uses the lower end of his range to powerful effect. And, while most of the vocals use what singers call a head voice, what tends to kind of float, for Captain Wanker, Wilcox uses his chest voice, which produces a deeper, more grounded effect.

Open Hand is collection of songs which express a tension between hope and despair. Most of the darkest songs here include at least a faint ray of hope. And most of the brightest songs convey a sense of fragility, a sense that this could all be gone in an instant. And, as the brief example above shows, Wilcox is a poet. He is able to come up with bizarre metaphors, and get them to sound completely normal. In Outside Door, Wilcox places his character in an abandoned movie theater, where, for the character alone, the same movie plays over and over. This represents the fact that the character is emotionally stuck, but he finds an exit in the end, and rejoins the world. In Not From Here, Wilcox portrays a woman whose innocence and ability to see the world with fresh eyes makes her seem unearthly to the man who loves her; in the song, he characterizes her as actually being from another planet. This may not sound like a promising idea for a song, but Wilcox is able to turn it into one of the most beautiful love songs I have ever heard.

Wilcox also addresses the state of the world in a few places. He avoids stridency by personalizing his statements: he uses the viewpoint of a man in the Carolinas to talk about the economy in Dream Again, and creates a conversation between his narrator and Jesus to comment on religious hypocrisy in Beyond Belief.

Only one song misses the mark for me: Captain Wanker is just too self-pitying. But David Wilcox has set the bar quite high with his body of previous work, and that is what makes his rare misses so disappointing. Over all, if this is what Wilcox sounds like when he has complete artistic control, I look forward to hearing more.

David Wilcox: Not From Here

David Wilcox: Outside Door


Anonymous said...

Who is the musical saw player on the album?

Darius said...

His name is Steve Porter, and Wilcox says in the album notes that Porter is a champion saw player.

Anonymous said...

hey - nice review, and thoughtful criticism. Thanks for sharing!