Wild Mercury Sound
Robert Stillman: "Machine's Song"
In 1995, Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson released a mostly-forgotten album together called "Orange Crate Art", and I found myself in LA interviewing the pair. It was a pretty unusual trip, ending in Wilson’s front room, where he claimed that his secret was “abstaining from orgasm”,performed “Satisfaction” and an updated version of “Surfer Girl” for me on his grand piano, then offered me $100 to get my ropey dictaphone recordings played on the radio.
Before that, though, I found myself in a less ostentatious house, one that felt more like the home of an academic than a music legend. Here, Van Dyle Parks spent a good part of the interview guiding me through a pile of art books, enthusing about Franz Bischoff, Alfred R Mitchell, Granville Redmond and other generally obscure painters who, in the early 20th Century, had established a mellow Californian outpost of impressionism.
I was thinking about these pictures, and about Parks’ work in general, the other day, playing a new album by a composer and multi-instrumentalist called Robert Stillman. Those Californian artists reflected a strong tendency in Parks himself: a genteel, whimsical, rustic vision of their homeland; a kind of Americana very different to what we normally associate with the word. In this canon of Americana, Stephen Foster (the composer of “Oh Susanna”, among other standards) and Aaron Copeland take greater prominence than Robert Johnson and Hank Williams, and the music works like a soundtrack for uncertain, sepia-tinted memories, where folksong merges into classical forms, rather than hard-edged roots reportage.
"Machine’s Song" is, apparently, Robert Stillman’s third album, though I’ve only come across him in passing before, when he played keyboards on Hiss Golden Messenger’s lovely "Root Work" live album. It’s an instrumental album, based on solo shows Stillman played as a one-man band, operating the drums with his feet while he sat at the piano.
Not the sort of set-up you’d immediately compare with ornate Parks fantasias like "Song Cycle", but the vibe on Machine’s Song is very similar, a sort of creaky, uncanny music that creates an impressionistic picture of old America. There are affinities with more recent artists, of course: Tom Waits’ sinister carnies, maybe; Mercury Rev, who approached this neighbourhood on parts of "Deserter’s Songs"; Richard Swift’s Tin Pan Alley swagger on "The Novelist". Stillman, though, takes things much further, towards abstraction and the territory of Jim O’Rourke. O’Rourke’s a massive Parks fan, incidentally, and an interview I did with him once degenerated into much justified ranting about Parks’ superiority to Todd Rundgren.
Anyhow, Stillman can write grand tunes like “Broadwar”, but he’s also fascinated with noise collages that are, in their way, just as evocative. Bells ring on like old fire engines tearing into the night, while keyboards and horns conjure up the sound of trains rolling across vast expanses. If we normally associate Americana with the stories of outlaw characters – hobos, drifters, whatever - who might be riding the trains, "Machine’s Song", as the title suggests, gives a voice to the trains themselves. “All music and sound composed, performed and recorded by Robert Stillman for Archaic Future,” read the sleevenotes; perhaps we could call it, ‘Avant-Garde Nostalgia’, too?