Monday, February 25, 2013

Music To Write By: "House Carpenter" by Nickel Creek

Why Listen? To see one genre slowly shift into another; for form that benefits content; for a reminder that tragedy and noir are kissing cousins.

I've never much held with chronological snobbery. There are good old things and good new things, and age has little intrinsic correspondence to quality. Still, I wish more storytellers would turn to forgotten folk tales for inspiration, because age can (if nothing else) provide a fresh perspective. That's what the bluegrass trio Nickel Creek did with "House Carpenter," a traditional ballad that begins like a standard story of unrequited love between a sailor and his land-locked girl:
"Well met, well met," said an old true love.
"Well met, well met," said he.
"I have just returned from the salt, salt sea.
"And it's all for the love of thee."
Soon enough, though, listeners begin to understand that something untoward is going on. The lovers claim to have seen one another "three-fourths of a long, long year" ago, yet the sailor appears unaware that that the woman has married the titular house carpenter. Things get even more suspicious when "a darling little babe" comes into the picture at the midpoint. You don't need to an auditor to realize that the math's all screwy and someone is lying his (or her) nether regions off. The specifics of culpability hardly matter in the end, though: The sailor seduces the women, who gladly abandons her bairn and huband. While the narrative mode is ostensibly tragedy, the story's close comes as cold and mean as anything in noir, and Sean Watkins haunting open guitar phrasings underpin Chris Thile's melancholy mandolin work. Form and content hold hands here, reminding us that nature hates a vacuum -- particularly a moral one.

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