The following is a guest post from Davy Jones. Read more of his work at You Hear That
There’s this moment from college I remember so distinctly, even though it was about 10 years ago. I was sitting in a basement computer lab, working on a paper about the value of the word “and” and how binary oppositions can be harmful to speech. All of a sudden, it struck me how ridiculous I sounded. It’s not like we’re going to eliminate the word “or” from the English language, and binary oppositions like hot/cold and up/down are part of our brains’ basic hardwiring. Railing against them is kind of like decrying our sense of smell. It’s abstract nonsense.
Did I stop writing? Of course not! I buffed that bullshit until it was nice and shiny and handed it in a few early-morning hours later, because that’s what college is all about. But the older I get, the less bullshitty that paper seems. The ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head at once without needing to kick one or the other out is an essential part of maintaining an active imagination, and Grandma Sparrow’s May 16 show at the Coalition Theater provided a most colorful illustration of how rewarding “and” can be.
I’ve tried to describe Grandma Sparrow & His Piddletractor Orchestra, the brainchild of Megafaun drummer Joe Westerlund, to about a dozen people over the course of the last month and a half, and I can’t say that I’ve gotten any better at it. There are just so many contradictions. She is a he. The album is billed as a “children’s song-cycle for adults.” It’s wacky, but there’s carefully considered music waiting around each zany corner. In so many ways, it is what it isn’t. Discrepancies like these may make the project hard to explain, but it’s precisely the discrepancies that make listening to the album and seeing it performed live such valuable experiences.
Take the children’s vs. adult’s thing. The idea of configuring a piece of entertainment so kids and parents alike can enjoy it isn’t exactly novel. Disney’s done it for years, J. K. Rowling earns $1.6 million every three days, Matt Groening made it into a 30-minute template, and Trey Parker and Matt Stone brought it full circle by writing for adults while giving 4th graders the moral high ground over their excitable, torch-and-pitchfork-prone parents. But rather than layering meaning so that two distinct age groups are entertained, or turning to decidedly adults-only themes, Grandma Sparrow does something remarkable: It actually gets you to think like a kid again.
I wrote a short preview before that May 16 show, and this was my reaction after listening to the album in full for the first time:
“I don’t want to say too much, because I have a feeling I’ll have plenty to write about after tonight’s show, but I will say that it’s been ages since I’ve had so much fun being thoroughly confused. Part of the magic of being young is not knowing things, and this record’s colorful impenetrability makes me feel like I’m a kid again, wondering what all the adults are snickering about. It feels (and sounds) mighty good.”
I’m not sure that impenetrable is the right word, but sorting out what’s happening in the world of Piddletractor isn’t easy. We know that Grandma Sparrow has kidnapped Alewishus, the bratty Clown Prince of Piddletractor, and that you’re supposed to tiptoe past the Oryoman, and that we all have a fairy grandfather called a Scrimpa who looks like a shrimp and lives in the sea… but the relationships between these details aren’t spelled out for us. Engaging with this universe involves forging your own connections using a very specific type of creativity.
One of the paradoxical things about childhood is that adults are constantly making things simple for you – surrounding you with bright, primary colors, telling you what to eat and when to go to bed, paying for everything you need to survive – yet being a kid is hard. You’re constantly bombarded by new experiences, and while your parents can try to instill certain values and teach you how to interact with people, it’s your brain that has to form new neural pathways and construct the network of associations that will define you as an individual. That’s what growing up is – connecting an ever-increasing number of dots – and Grandma Sparrow, with its hazy plot and collage of uncanny nouns, carries you back to that overwhelming, malleable place like nothing else I can recall.
There’s a fine line there, though, because chaos isn’t enough. If I gave you a string of randomly selected numbers, I wouldn’t expect you to grow as a person or be entertained. Fortunately, Grandma Sparrow is anchored by Westerlund’s wide-ranging musical talents and an outstanding cast of Spacebomb collaborators, including the label’s founder, Matthew E. White, who’s credited as producer. This is Spacebomb’s fourth release, and one of the joys of spinning it is hearing how the label’s distinctive sound is incorporated. Sturdy horn arrangements. Fearless exploration of styles. A mix that puts the bass up front and blends the other elements so that they sound impossibly unified. As far afield as Westerlund’s ideas drift, White’s production – especially on “Existential Mothersnakes” and “This Is My Wheelhouse” – grounds the song cycle by connecting it to a Spacebomb tradition that’s gaining definition with each addition to its catalog.
While there were plenty of Spacebomb family members in attendance at the Coalition Theater (the contributors I saw included Reggie Pace, Matthew E. White and Bryan Hooten), Westerlund was backed by the members of Canine Heart Sounds, a Durham-based four-piece that managed to wrangle the album’s disparate material masterfully. What amazed me most was their timing. Westerlund would gesture with his arms or hips, like James Brown conducting on the fly, and the band would be right there, striking exactly where the album would have them strike (I’m thinking of the end of “The Pigsmilk Candycane” in particular). As the show progressed, it became clear that all five performers had memorized the cycle inside and out, and watching them interact was a little like watching a group of math prodigies going around a circle taking turns reciting digits of pi – like, “How the hell are you people doing this?”
Bands use chaos in different ways to achieve different things, but rarely do you see chaos and order together like that. I love when Wilco’s live rendition of “Via Chicago” descends into discord for a few frenetic, Glenn Kotche-driven bars and emerges feeling shiny and renewed by Nels Cline’s guitar. It’s a serious crowd pleaser, because there’s powerful catharsis in that kind of juxtaposition, but Grandma Sparrow is all about the “and,” not the “or.” There’s even a track – “Nap Time: Twelve-Tone Lullaby” that incorporates the 12-tone technique, a method that can sound like indiscriminate tonality despite adhering to strict mathematical rules. It’s order and chaos, hand in hand.
Don’t get me wrong – the show was undoubtedly crazy. Westerlund was standing on chairs, cycling through costumes, speaking with a shrieking vibrato one minute and a pitch-shifted basso profondo the next. And when the show ended, and he got back on stage to thank the audience after a lengthy applause, he started cautiously, like you would if you were talking to someone you wanted to convince of your sanity. But the moments that followed were as heartfelt and touching as could be. With incredible articulation and warmth, he thanked the people in the room who helped him make an admittedly out-there vision become real. I got the sense that multiple leaps of faith were needed to make this thing happen, and you don’t have to be a musician to see the beauty and grace in people having each other’s backs like that.
Once most of the crowd had filed out, I went to the front of the Coalition Theater’s stage and asked Westerlund to sign the vinyl copy of his album I’d bought just before the show started. Sadly, the pen I had was running out of ink, and he had to bear down to get it to make the faint marks you can see in this post. Not to worry, though. The Grandma Sparrow experience itself is as indelible as it gets.