There are any number of reasons for thinking noted Harvard evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker is wrong-headed, but music lovers are welcome to seize on this one: “Music is useless,” he wrote in “The Language Instinct.” “It shows no signs of design for attaining a goal such as long life, grandchildren, or accurate perception and prediction of the world.”
Apparently, dude didn’t listen to nearly enough Marvin Gaye, since you can’t make grandchildren without getting it on.
More seriously, though, it’s hard to imagine not instinctually understanding the power music holds for bringing people together, creating unifying bonds, and, yes, perhaps contributing to good old procreation.
Emilia Dahlin and her Sextet provide ample evidence for music’s power and humanity’s need for it with their upcoming release, a record created not just before a live audience, but as part of an event designed to infuse the recording with the power of shared experience.
While most live records are concert documents, homages to the most popular and crowd-pleasing of an artist’s catalog, none of the songs on “… Green Things to Grow” have appeared anywhere previously. The album instead acts as document of a time and place — and people.
Dahlin and company transformed an industrial warehouse into a performance space for just the single night, the audience sat down to a meal, talked about building community, and seems to have enjoyed the hell out of Dahlin’s set. The applause that follows each song – even the mid-song whoops and hollers – does much to raise the album’s energy.
Ultimately, Dahlin asks as much from the listener as she does of that in-person audience. This is a record that insists you buy in to a positive worldview, a general outlook that refuses to choose the defeatism that’s easy to fall into for those who care about things like avoiding climate disaster, embracing immigrants in Maine, and the promotion of general principles of equality.
“Think back,” Dahlin implores on “Love, Love, Love,” with a jazzy phrasing that speeds up and pulls back, “to a simpler time when we weren’t bound with complexities that tie and bind us all so tightly.” There is a lovely little descending guitar from Max Cantlin (Micromassé, Gypsy Tailwind, Zach Jones, Fogcutters, Outtakes, etc.), managing to be tropical and Buddy Holly at the same time, with chiming pops on the upbeat. While Of Monsters and Men’s “Love Love Love” (no commas for those Scandinavians, Oxford or otherwise) is unrequited and Donny Hathaway’s “Love, Love, Love” is filled with regret (“When I was kissing someone new, deep inside I was missing you”), Dahlin’s is devoid of irony and wholly genuine.
Songs here appreciate the seemingly weightless beauty of a butterfly (“Beija Flor,” which also features Dahlin singing in Portuguese), the pristine despair of a child who’s just lost a “Blue Balloon,” the quiet space for contemplation that exists in “The Wee Hours.” Maybe the most aggressive Dahlin gets is with the huge vocals she deploys in “I Do,” where she boldly extols the love she feels for her husband, right before giving us a little bit of that scat vocal she’s always had a penchant for.
This is an album that is aggressively thoughtful and militantly soothing. Sorcha Cribben-Merrill provides backing harmonies that soften the crisp edges of Dahlin’s delivery. Kate Beever lends a vibraphone that makes songs like the title track fuzzy around the margins, warm and inviting. Adam Frederick’s stand-up bass pairs with Seth Kearns’ drums to always keep the rhythm from seeming singer-songwritery — it’s jazz or ’60s rock or something sorta Latin.
But it all comes back to Dahlin. This fifth record, coming 10 years after her initial four-record burst, is full of the humility and self-reflection brought on by marriage, children, and the trials and tribulations of family making. The guitar picking out harmonics in the open of “Thank You To …” seems to stand in for the clarity she’s found: “Thank you to the pregnant moon, whose quiet gently fills the room / Thank you to the starry skies, whirl overhead all through the night.”
It takes hard work to get past the daily indecencies and hardships of raising a young family and see the moon and stars in all their wondrous mystery and it’s good that Dahlin makes sure to include a track like “Fear Itself” to let each listener know that none of this comes easy: “Whoah fear, how I love to entertain you / Come in for a cup of tea and leave me full of anxiety.”
Should fear also be a frequent visitor at your house, this might just be the record you’re looking for to help you bar the door.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 shows
There used to be a time when Portland got kind of slow in January, but no longer. There’s no shortage of music this weekend and next.
Jan 10: “Girls Just Want To Have Fundamental Rights” at Port City Music Hall. Yep, it’s Cyndi Lauper covers alongside plenty of originals from the likes of Sara Hallie Richardson, JanaeSound, and Anna Lombard, all to support Maine Family Planning and Planned Parenthood.
Jan 10: Ian O’Neil, Dominic Lavoie, Midwestern Medicine at Sun Tiki Studios. You might know O’Neil from his work with Deer Tick, but in this fall he released the solo piece “Ten Years of It,” in collaboration with Chris and Dennis Ryan.
Jan 11: Cadaverette, Iron Gag, Willzyx, Idiot Genes at SPACE Gallery. Cadaverette, the self-described “Portland ADD doom/sludge/jazz/power violence/spazz metal” band release the new album, “A Farewell to Earthly Existence.”
Jan 11: The Last Sip, Rumple, Foret Endormie at Portland House of Music. The Last Sip, led by Alleric Nez (Mousa) and featuring Brian Arlet on bass and Truth About Daisies’ Aaron David Cloutier on drums, celebrate the release of their self-titled first album.
Jan 19: Bumbling Woohas, Nuclear Bootz, No Good, Twisted Hell Cat, Peach Hat, Thithy Bwown at Apohadian Theater. It’s punk. It’s fun. All proceeds go to Preble Street Resource Center. You should go.