Night, Sleep, Death (released February 19 on Blue Chopsticks), the third outing from The Wingdale Community Singers, is a wise breeze blown in on the “mystical, moist night air,” a subtle, elemental current filled with secrets and everyday wisdom waiting for anyone that lets it flow over them, heart open and mind ready to spin. Principles singer-songwriters Hannah Marcus and Rick Moody with guitarist-singer David Grubbs weave tuneful, intimate ruminations with echoes of a more bedraggled Simon & Garfunkel, the folksy side of Elliott Smith, early John Martyn, and California hidden gems The Moore Brothers with a sprinkling of Oar Skip Spence in the subtle, moody atmosphere. Mortality is front and center, both the emptying hourglass variety and the more personal corpses of people we used to be, but Night, Sleep, Death is no gallows affair. Quite the contrary, in fact, the long black veil is pulled back to reveal how much of our suffering is self-induced, a construct that can be undone by laughter and a well placed, “So what?”
I was walking down the road/ When I came across a bunch of people having a good time/ And the reason was a friend of theirs they really liked had just died/ And I realized that everything, everything is just how you decide to see it.
The blend of voices here is further bolstered by guests Jolie Holland and Tanya Donelly, the sound of folks who like to sit close and see how their singing intertwines, at times massed and lush and others a solitary sound with frailty and hope worn on its sleeve for all the world to see. Moments are redolent of sea shanties and Renaissance English rounds but the language and ideas are pleasantly modern, the mundane and majestic each having their say over the course of this moving song cycle. Each instrument, mostly stringed ones including some really lovely violin work, has a presence that’s uncluttered, the vibrations leaping from the speakers in an almost visual manner, a skipping companion to the singing, which takes center stage throughout. There’s always just the right amount of instrumental accompaniment, the perfect skeleton to dance with all the rich ideas, cogent observations, and quivering tongues.
Moody is a hell of a novelist (Garden State, Right Livelihoods, The Ice Storm) that brings ringing tenderness to his pieces on Night, Sleep, Death, proving the rare exception to the general awfulness of most author bands. His sincerity and open delivery combined with the inescapably philosophical nature of he and Marcus’ compositions is a catalyst for the listener to drop their guard and muse vulnerably along with the Wingdale gang. Everything about this set – including Marcus’ wonderfully flowing, captivating voice – seems to encourage closeness and shared introspection, the subject matter and the form it’s delivered to us in reaching big stuff through less traveled pathways.
Attention to detail is always important with The Wingdale Community Singers but never more so than with their latest salvo, which could painlessly whiff by careless listeners yet rewards hugely those willing to shut out the hubbub and endless digital connectivity that’s become the modern norm. A truly special album riddled with enlightenment, beauty, and the ache of the human condition. If they only make a new album every 3-4 years let it be as great as Night, Sleep, Death. It’s well worth the wait.
David Grubbs, Hannah Marcus and Rick Moody were kind enough to tackle DI’s ongoing philosophical roundtable, and here’s what they had to say.
- What’s the first thing that springs to mind when you see the word “God”?
- Hannah: Sad. Same number of letters. I’m sad. Where’s God?
David: The strange fact that it is capitalized.
Rick: I like the single syllable and the hard consonants. It goes all the way back to proto-Indo-European, you know. That’s a very longstanding and popular word. Of course, it did have two syllables back in those days. As with many words, we, in English (via Old High German, etc.) flattened it out into its present blunt condition.
- Which has the better cosmology, Star Wars or Star Trek? Why?
- Name one album that has spiritual resonance for you.
- Woody Allen once said, “I don’t know the question but sex is definitely the answer.” So, what’s the question?
- You can have a dinner party with any three people throughout human history. Who do you invite, what’s on the menu and what intoxicant do you share for dessert?
Hannah: Star Trek, I think, because it is time based rather than space based, and trek based rather than war based. I’d rather have time to take a trek than to fight a war over space.
David: Star Wars – because I have a better grasp of it. Always missed Star Trek as a kid because it was on television while I was in church
Rick: Star Trek has been refracted in more plentiful narratives (five television series, innumerable mass market paperbacks, multiple films, etc.) and to my way of thinking that makes for a more capacious cosmology. Once there was fan fiction in which Kirk and Spock were having sex, you are pretty much arrived at anything-is-possible. However: you have not asked about the Marvel multiverse, which may be the ne plus ultra cosmologically.
Hannah: Blonde on Blonde. Very corny I know but it went into my head at a couple of particularly impressionable times in my life – once when I was ten or eleven and stared at the album cover and at Dylan’s inscrutable hair at that perfect pinnacle of his life and made a dismissive remark to my little friend about what a terrible voice he had. But I had a secret crush on him. Then in the mid-nineties at some terrifying hour of the morning, in someone else’s greasy loft while he was printing Neurosis posters and the smell of the printer ink was wafting up into my nostrils and the excruciating magnificence of that whole album just injected itself ruthlessly into my heart. Every time I hear the opening chords of “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” now I can barely take it.
David: Circle X’s self-titled EP.
Rick: New Picnic Time by Pere Ubu. Written and recorded during the period when David Thomas was taken up with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As a result, totally suffused with religious dread, which is not a subject that is adequately rendered in rock and roll very often. I love Astral Weeks, too, and A Love Supreme, but these are obvious. There is nothing obvious about New Picnic Time, which is remarkably terrifying in some ways, and very anti-rock-and-roll even as it displays one of the great garage bands of all time. Few records strike me with as much force.
Hannah: What did the Czech accordionist answer when the lady asked what were the maximum number of reed blocks an accordion could have?
David: Does it have to do with God?
Rick: What was the last name of that guy John who played the Pyramid all the time in the eighties?
Hannah: This is just such an impossible question…Maybe just Chef Daniel Boulud and my ex-husband. It’s a relationship that remains somewhat unresolved. Perhaps we could finally be friends after sharing a nice Grand Marnier black truffle soufflé concocted by Daniel. This sounds complex. Okay wait…Christopher Hitchens – just because I really do think he’d be a kick at dinner – Chogyam Trungpa, another heavy drinker who I’d like to ask a few questions, and Sappho, just because I bet she was really cool, and according to Anne Carson she coined the word “bittersweet,” which means she probably enjoyed good food. But Daniel Boulud would still cook us a truffle soufflé. I’ve got a bit of a thing for him. This all sounds scary as well. What if Daniel Boulud just cooked me a nice soufflé and we sat and ate it while watching reruns of Saxondale? Could you arrange that?
David: Cathy Bowman, Marcel Proust and Carlo Gesualdo. We’ll order Japanese food to be delivered. And top it off with Pappy Van Winkle bourbon.
Rick: Food is for avoiding starvation. I do not fetishize it. And I know nothing about intoxicants. John Cage, Apuleius, Sei Shonogan.