October 17, 2016

Off Your Radar #38: I Love You, Go Easy by Devon Sproule

 
One outstanding album each week recommended & analyzed by a dozen music writers & lovers.
 
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I Love You, Go Easy by Devon Sproule
Released On May 27, 2001
Released By Tin Angel Records
 
 
This Week's Selection Chosen By Davy Jones

The very first thing you hear after starting I Love You, Go Easy is a description of the fauna of part of a particular pond. "The back part of the pond belongs to the pilots and yellow belly sliders," Devon Sproule sings, before advising "If you push to that part of the pond, on the mossy dock, and fall in, hang onto your bits." Oh snap. Literally.

It's a very specific piece of advice about a specific place I'll almost certainly never visit, but the opening track goes onto illustrate holding on in a different sense -- enduring the "miserable rhythm" of competitive running -- before the chorus defiantly proclaims "If I can do this, I can do anything."

From turtles to running to a cohesive thematic picture. That's Sproule's brand of brilliance: stringing razor-sharp stream of consciousness vignettes together in ways that lend meaning and significance to the details of her surroundings and relationships.

I first encountered Devon Sproule in Charlottesville while on a half-music, half-beer press trip with fellow Off Your Radar contributor and Virginia Tourism ambassador Andrew Cothern. Sproule was playing a daytime gig at a spot called The Garage, where musicians perform for an audience that's spread out across a steep hill on the other side of a narrow street.

There happened to be an event going on within The Garage called Letter Writing Day, where you were encouraged to hand-write letters to the people you care about. Buying my copy of I Love You, Go Easy then seems fated now, given how beautifully the album mimics the warmth and detail of old-fashioned, personal correspondence.

"The Warning Bell" may contain my favorite example. Tell me this doesn't sound like the middle part of a letter or email you'd get from a sibling or parent who had a short to-do list that day:

"I've been waking up early to the tune of the neighborhood rooster. The cat's in the dark yard hunting birds. Pretty much all the leaves on the mulberry tree came down overnight. But she's still blending in all right."

Sproule sets scene after scene with as much deliberate care, and in doing so, she forms this really interesting link between physical and emotional spaces. If the person you care about can't physically be there with you, you tell them what "there" looks like so they can kinda sorta be there. Or, if the person you're with isn't happy where you are, you offer to hit the road, as she does in "Now's The Time." Connecticut, San Diego, the hill country... with apologies to Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, home is wherever the narrator and the one she loves are together and happy.

One line I can't get enough of from "Now's The Time" is "You can tell Keith that if he needs to he can come." It doesn't even seem like a song lyric when you type it out like that -- it's so direct, like a quick logistical text. I called her vignettes "razor-sharp" in part because so many other verses contain this kind of single expression or turn of phrase that's surgical in its wit and ingenuity. "I learned how to question attack back" in "The Unmarked Animals." "It was Missouri in a hurry" in "The Faulty Body." And the amount of internal rhyme is staggering. Lyrics that are this meticulously constructed shouldn't flow so naturally, but here, they drift along on the gentle tide of Sproule's prosaic gift.

I've talked a lot about lyrics, but I Love You, Go Easy is an absolute feast for the ears of anyone interested in unique arrangements and instrumentation. Guitar, bass, drums, synth, wurlitzer, trombone, saxophone, clarinet, flute... they all make appearances, but they're used judiciously and steadfastly avoid dragging songs out of the realm of the personal.

In the spirit of Letter Writing Day, I hope Sproule considers this an open letter in appreciation of and thanks for this wonderful album.

Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
http://youhearthat.wordpress.com
 
 
 
A truly fearless songwriter full of timeless elegance, modern wit, and impeccable command.
 

I Love You, Go Easy is as unassuming, weird, and beautiful as Virginia. Just when you think you've got our state, and this record, figured out you'll start to notice hidden gems. Devon built each song with different sounding bricks but it totally works. Overall the music, especially the soft textures that sit just under the lead instrument, reminds me of Lambchop, which shouldn't be too surprising if you read her bio. Spend some time in headphones with this record to really get the full effect. My favorite track, "The Unmarked Animals," is the only one with that deep Hiss Golden Messenger groove going on. You could label this a singer songwriter/folk record, but I think that would be probably give people the wrong starting point. I think it sounds little more like Beck on Mutations, Sea Change, or even Modern Guilt.

PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
http://pjsykes.com
 

It's been such a pleasure this week getting to listen to Devon Sproule and her wonderful voice. I remember first seeing her perform on an episode of Later... With Jools Holland a good few years ago, where she was the standout performer. I liked what I heard back then but never followed up by really digging into her back catalogue. However, my musical tastes now in my late twenties heavily lean on folk and now I'm absorbing all the Devon Sproule I can handle. I Love You, Go Easy is one of those records that sounds timeless; you could put this on in ten, twenty years and it'll sound just as fresh and current. I've struggled a bit this week in finding the right way to talk about this record with you. Not because of anything negative, but simply because this is an album that speaks for itself. This is an album that experiments with jazz, blues and country but they never come off as gimmicky or outstay their welcome. Instead Sproule molds these elements with her melancholic, beautiful vocals to produce her strongest and most consistent body of work.

James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
 

One of my all-time favorite artists (probably surprising to everyone) is Carole King. Of course, she's one of the most prolific, accomplished, and respected singer-songwriters we've ever seen, but that's not why she struck a chord with me. And I don't even particularly like Tapestry, which many would consider her magnum opus. I'm much more partial to her 1973 kitchen-sink-of-an-album Fantasy (which I might actually consider for my next OYR entry [Editor's Note: Please do!]). What I love so much about King is her vulnerability. As amazing as her musical backdrops usually are, especially on Fantasy, she never tries to hide her less than perfect voice with excess noise or cheeky mixing. She always gives the vocal and the lyrics top billing, because above all else she's a storyteller. And so much of I Love You, Go Easy reminds me of my favorite aspects of Carole King. Look no further than the title track where Devon Sproule's quirky vocal breaks into a thousand pieces halfway through the song -- it's gloriously raw. Without a doubt my favorite track is The Faulty Body." I think we've established the vocal excellence here, but the production on this record is, as the Brits would say, "the tits". An ominous cello intro (not that it's at all possible to compose an upbeat cello intro), followed by well-placed hits of saxophone, and flute for the win! Sproule's versatility is undeniable, as she can wow you with a minimal acoustic guitar piece the same as having a small chamber orchestra.

Kellen "J. Clyde" Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
http://jclydebeats.com
 
 
Click below to watch the tender and intimate video for "Monk/Monkey."
 
 
Shrewdly shot with camera work as nimble and playful as the touching song itself.
 

While listening to Devon Sproule's excellent I Love You, Go Easy, I was reminded of a story involving my fellow Off Your Radar writers. In May, at an event for Virginia is for Music Lovers that Andrew Cothern curated, a talented young woman from Galax, Dori Freeman, played. The entire audience was enchanted with her, and in between sets, I ran into Doug and Davy. We were all holding newly-purchased copies of her LP. While Freeman's sound is different from Devon Sproule, I can say for certain that country-ish female singer-songwriters from Virginia is a genre that many of us OYR-ers really enjoy and are probably biased towards. Sproule's alto isn't showy -- there aren't any crazy vocal hooks or runs. It sits perfectly atop her jazzy compositions, holding the melody while we are given entree into what I imagine is her world of growing up in rural Virginia: jumping into ponds, sitting in cars behind gas stations while rolling cigarettes, pursuing a career as a musician, and just listening to the sounds of nature. I have mentioned it here before, but songs that show slices of life -- whether real or about imaginary people—really get to me. This is not a record to put on at a party or while trying to stay awake while driving -- it's best enjoyed on a fall afternoon, on headphones, where you can spend your time exploring Sproule's world, drinking in the simple childhood nostalgia that never feels stilted or false.

Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Occasional Feminist Music Blogger
http://smartladieslovestuff.com
 

There's a poem called "Curfew Must Not Ring Tonight" that was written in 1867. In Rose Hartwick Thorpe's poem, she examines the lengths in which one will go to fight for love. Her protagonist, Bessie, does everything in her power to stop the titular bell from ringing and subsequently saving her lover's life. The poem resurfaced in the form of satire with the song "Hang On The Bell Nellie" in 1949. Thrown through several iterations since, the song tells the story of a daughter attempting to save the life of her father. In this case, he is incarcerated due to protecting her from the sexual predator Handsome Jack. As a result of the altercation, Jack falls into the way of an oncoming train and Nellie's father is seen as a murderer. By the end of the song, it's suggested that Nellie has come around to her initial concerns of her safety and has now realized that it's fun to swing after all. The reason I bring up all of this backstory is to give an idea as to how powerful Devon Sproule's song "The Warning Bell" is when you consider it the unofficial sequel to "Hang On The Bell Nellie." One of the several highlights on I Love You, Go Easy, Sproule takes ideas from both sources and spins her own tale. An artist on the road that finds romance in the perfect nights of playing music while also balancing the realities of romantic folly. Where Bessie and Nellie were subservient to a male presence, Sproule exists with a certain autonomy that she acquires from what her songs provide her. The love that surrounds her elevates her, but it doesn't define her every bit of being. If anything, the thought of the sacrifice is a leveled battleground that she will fight for with the right person beside her. They will save each other's lives and it doesn't require an unfair balance. When she steps down the ladder and releases herself from the confines of the rope that binds her to the bell, she does more than just let the bell ring. Sproule declares that she isn't confined to the gender-centric ideas of the past. I Love You, Go Easy as a whole might exist as a cautionary tale of the relationships we have with art and others. In the instance of "The Warning Bell," it's a moment that characterizes the way Sproule circumvents folk tropes to achieve creative identity.

Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
http://shutupcleary.tumblr.com
 

From a certain point of view, I Love You, Go Easy is the perfect lazy Sunday afternoon soundtrack. However, it's not my personal experience of a Sunday afternoon at all. I'm never lazy so much as rendered immobile by anxiety and paranoia. I'm never comfortable so much as I am resigned to the things I'm stuck with. Here in my life, the struggle continues with no end in sight, and as a result I feel more at home sweating and spitting in a punk rock basement. But that's just me, and it's honestly not a fate I'd wish on anyone else. So perhaps you'll be happier slipping into this album like a comfortable sweater. There's not a single prickly spot or scratchy tag in I Love You, Go Easy -- most of it goes down as smoothly as high-dollar whiskey (not that I'd know... I don't even drink). There's definitely the same sort of appeal to Devon Sproule's sparse, warm songcraft as it shines through in recent products from the Spacebomb production lab; if you dig the work of Matthew E. White and Natalie Prass, and find yourself wondering where to get more of that sweet stuff, this is a great place for you to head next. Crack a pumpkin-spice ale, make yourself some avocado toast, put your feet up, and enjoy this incredibly relaxing album. After all, you've earned it. (Even if I haven't.)

Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
http://rvamustseeshows.wordpress.com
 
 
 
Live or on record, hers is an irresistible sound, built on fascinating lyrics and marvelous designs, that is purely astonishing.
 

I love how "If I Can Do This" opens Devon Sproule's album like an Yma Sumac number, all subterranean drums and wayward flute. But Sproule herself is not a multi-octave Peruvian queen so she has to rely more on her words, which are quite brilliant. Poetic lyrics like "While it's still fun and games, while it's still me and you / Let's give ourselves a taste of what we have to lose," kept me hangin' on when her voice, sometimes cracked and wandering around the key, made me wonder if Davy Jones was dragging us into (god forbid) Moldy Peaches territory. But I stuck with it and found more rewards throughout the album. The production, by Canadian polymath Sandro Perri, is alone worthy of close study, providing varied but cohesive backing for Sproule and touching on folk, jazz, and soul without settling down anywhere expected. In fact, if you like I Love You, Go Easy, I recommend going deep and finding Perri's album Impossible Spaces (also from 2011 -- busy man!) as it has some of the same sonic charm. "The Evening Ghost Crab" could be a deal breaker for some, giving Sproule some bottleneck slide to "harmonize" with, but it's that confidence and giving of no fucks that makes I Love You, Go Easy a quiet triumph of individualism. I recall rejecting Natalie Prass at first -- "too quirky," I remarked to my daughter -- before falling head over heels for the Nashville chanteuse. While I may not ever feel quite that way about Sproule, I recognize her achievement and actually think she opened doors for singers like Prass and two of my other favorites, Jenny O. and Amber Papini of Hospitality. So thanks, Devon. And stick to your guns -- you're onto something!

Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
http://anearful.blogspot.com/
 

This album goes easy. Probably a bit too easy for my tastes. In all its lightness, Sproule goes a little too light on the hooks. But that's okay as it's strength lies in its jazzier stylings. While I typically celebrate the album as a whole, this record feels like one I could cherry-pick and be happy. Gimme tracks 1, 2, 4, 8 and the hidden track and find me in the shade of some large tree on a sunny day. Even better if these songs had a heavier Jon Brion flavor. It's quite refreshing to hear an artist dip into the reservoir of woodwinds and brass and set aside the ubiquitous acoustic guitar! There's much polish here, but it also flattens things out where I prefer more contrast, space, and unexpected texture (of course this pops up during my October season of stark listening... i.e. lots of Faith by The Cure). I'm picking up shades up of Nina Nastasia and Sheryl Crow, but without the rawness and swagger. Personally I steer more towards the likes of a Camera Obscura or The Postmarks for this kind of mellow and atmosphere. I would love to see aforementioned tracks become a springboard for leaping out of the parlour folk pool and into a decisively less trod space. While the follow-up Colours makes good on having stronger pocket songs, it doesn't really capitalize on the beautiful whimsy of a "The Faulty Body." Definitely worth a listen for these Fiona-esque vignettes and maybe you'll dig the rest, while I feel more selective on this one.

Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
http://mattklimas.tumblr.com
 

Go easy, Sproule does not. She may appear restrained throughout the record, despite the style jumps from modest ballad to chic jazz, but for those listening closely, there's hardly anything restrained about her musical diction here. Careful inflection, implausible lines, contrary nuances; each song contains a vocal punch for the listener that's quite remarkable in its delivery. Her own voice, while modest in the grand scheme of things, is distinct from the opening lines of the record, leading you to follow her through each memory and realization. You're left hanging on every word, wondering the meaning behind the delivery of each phrase on powerhouses like "The Warning Bell." Why does she rush through a line like "the guitar feels right" only to let an observation like "it's a pretty good job" linger in the air of self-doubt? It renders her own voice the most noteworthy element of the record, something truly accomplished considering the musical tour she sends you on through marshy blues, tin pan jazz, and mountainous folk. It's enough to render you a fan after one song, admirer after two, follower after three, and devotee after four. For me, track five, "Runs In The Family," propelled me even further, meaning this record was hardly going easy on this musical sucker. By the end of the beautifully arranged "Monk/Monkey," I'd already resigned myself to write as many superlatives about her as I could cram into this short review, and then the familiar songwriting of Terre Roche came into view. This was Sproule covering a gorgeous song by The Roches, one that was tucked away at the tail-end of their uncanny debut record back in '79. Now, I was connecting the dots between The Roches and Sproule with the humor and inventive quality of her record coming into focus, leaving me even more stunned as well as happily exhausted with a simple plea. Devon, please. Go easy. I already fell in love here.

Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
http://sound-gaze.com
 
 
Next Week's Selection:
Girls With Glasses by Partyline
Chosen By Laura Confer
 
Off Your Radar Newsletter
 
Editor: Doug Nunnally
 
Contributors: James Anderson, Josh Buck, Shannon Cleary, Laura Confer, Andrew Cothern, Kellen "J. Clyde" Ford, Davy Jones, Matt Klimas, Melissa Koch, David Munro, Drew Necci, James Peart, Jeremy Shatan, & PJ Sykes
 
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