Around Valentine’s Day, music has the tendency to degenerate into trite love songs and Kenny G Hallmark-inspired drivel so wimpy that even the guys responsible for elevator music cover their ears. When Clogs (a project of Padma Newsome and Bryce Dessner that predates their indie rock band The National) actively advertises itself as influenced by a 16th century lute player, you can be forgiven for expecting their music to join the Valentine’s Day quagmire of New Age feel-goodery.
Surprisingly, Clogs’ new release, “Lantern,” is like nothing else you’re likely to hear in contemporary classical music. Hyperbole aside, this is really a band that, to use a favorite phrase of critics, defies categorization.
Clogs offers bands like The Books and Arcade Fire side project Bell Orchestre as points of comparison. Yet although the group resembles these bands in that they all record predominantly experimental instrumentals, they don’t embrace the post-rock elements of their peers quite as readily.
If you try to classify Clogs, you’ll end up feeling like a doctor diagnosing symptoms. Taken as a whole, Clogs music is classical chamber combined with rock instrumentation and jazz improvisation. Lucky for them, this is exactly what’s hot with the kids on the streets these days.
Actually, that’s surprisingly not true and, no offense to classical music fans, but for most people, classical music went out of style with the powdered wig. If you know the opening to Beethoven’s 5th (hint: dum-dum-dum-daaa), you’ve got just about the average understanding of classical music. So when “Kapsburger,” the first track on “Lantern,” opens with rapid acoustic guitar picking, you might be questioning how this can be considered classical music.
According to the band’s Web site, the songs emerge from a creative session similar to that of a rock band, which isn’t that unusual considering half the members play in one. Whereas a rock band may take these initial jam sessions into the studio, Clogs’ classically trained violinist Padma Newsome arranges these ideas into a cohesive album. Newsome draws on extensive influences in both classical music history and world music, leaving a final product that is a pool of influences channeled through the structure of classical music.
If this doesn’t make sense, that’s because it is really confusing to those of us who aren’t classically trained musicians. Even if you haven’t studied at a conservatory, you can hear and enjoy the final product, which is remarkably concise and clear, minimal yet forceful.
Dividing the album up into tracks doesn’t do it any justice; it’s much more gratifying to experience the ebb and flow of the record naturally and without the aid of a track listing. Individual songs flow beautifully into one another, like the transition from the slow, downbeat drum and electric guitar of “Canon” to Padma Newsome’s mournful violin that takes center-stage on “5/4.”
“Lantern” could easily be used as the soundtrack to an art house movie. It quietly and unobtrusively conveys emotion, at times seeming to play in the back of your mind. While almost never using vocals, the music tells you everything you need to know. On the song “Lantern,” which includes the only lyrics, Newsome sings, “Light me a lantern / For to get back home.” Though his voice is a welcome presence and is reminiscent of an even gentler Art Garfunkel, the instrumental already communicates all these feelings of loneliness and longing for us.
For all its ambition, “Lantern” is still a predominantly classical record aimed at a sector of pop music audience, an audience which can be impatient and fickle. Though Clogs doesn’t dumb down the music in the least, regular shifts in mood keep the album engaging. Halfway through the album, “The Song of the Cricket” begins in a fashion similar to the preceding songs and goes on rather repetitively for the first two and a half minutes with the same guitar loop.
Slowly the percussion builds and swirl into a chaos that washes away the song, leaving the electric guitar and fiddle to reconstruct a new, lighter melody. Soon a horn enters and starts plodding along. Before you know it, the song is practically a jitterbug.
The romantics planning a candle-light dinner tonight should put away the Luther Vandross and Andrea Bocelli. Everyone’s already heard Whitney Houston tell you she will always love you, but no one has ever heard anything quite like “Lantern.” Clogs are romantic, but never sappy – complex, but direct.
On second thought, don’t listen to Clogs tonight. It’s a record that deserves attention, and if you’ve gone through the trouble to prepare a candlelit dinner, you’ve got your mind on things other than music.