V/A: Blue (Dreams by Degrees, 2004)

by Brent

Dream by Degrees BlueBlue. The color of melancholy, some might say. “I’m feeling blue” There is a whole genre of music dedicated to pouring out laments from the dark recesses of the heart that is called “the blues”.

Deep, dark, mysterious blue is also present in nature: in the dark blue of deep water, in the blue of a clear sky. Blue is a pristine color in nature, reflecting purity and clarity.

Perhaps, then, it is fitting that Blue, a multi-faceted music-art-poetry project inspired by the color, reflects both the melancholic and pristine nature of the hue. Released by San Francisco music label Dreams by Degrees, Blue finds 13 independent and creative musical artists writing and performing music inspired by the color blue. Artists such as the Stratford 4, Rivulets, l’Altra, and others give their meditative sonic interpretations of the color. These tracks, each uniquely reflecting the vision and talent of the individual artists, are then sequenced by Colophon, who also contributes 6 instrumental pieces to tie the tracks together. Beautifully packaged in artwork by artist Autumn Whitehurst, and accompanied by a poem composed by William Trevor Montgomery, “Blue” transcends the average release by uniting music, art, and design into one beautiful package. With its contemplative feel and experimental ambience, Blue is sure to delight fans of soothing and slightly dark art.

The Music:

Corbi Wright sets the mood with her stark, stripped down “What can I give to my love?” Wright softly croons over a sparse acoustic guitar, and “What can I give to my love” is accented with the sounds of birds and perhaps even a bus or two going by, giving the impression that Wright is singing in a public square, or perhaps a bus terminal. The music itself is chilling, though without its measure of hope as Wright delicately ends with “Evening, take our bodies home safely”. This quaint feel, along with the quiet, pensive mood of the music, reveals warmth in Wright’s interpretation of Blue, along with the longing and abstraction that one would expect from a song inspired by the color.

While Wright’s song is an unrefined, bare-bones affair of the heart, Film School follows her with the fully fleshed-out “Sick of the Shame, part two” that combines elements of lush dreampop, tempered by slowcore brooding. Opulent blends of acoustic and effected electric guitars along with atmospheric keyboards swoon over a solid rhythm section, as Krayg Burton lends his faint world-weary voice. In fact, Burton’s voice is buried deep down in the mix, giving it a mysterious and unattainable quality. In this respect, Burton becomes another instrument in the blend of deliberate sounds. However, unlike so many other “dreampop” songs, Film School does not noodle with odd sounds just for the sake of experimentation. Instead, “Sick of Shame, part two” showcases the band’s skill at weaving an integrated and unified tone using a limited array of sounds and melody lines. No guitar strum is wasted; no keyboard line is merely background noise, for all combine to create a sombre composition that exhibits the sullen qualities of the color blue.

Blue, however, doesn’t interpret the color solely as fitting shoegazing or neo-folk compositions. This notion is shattered with Park Avenue Music’s “Sun = so bright”. The song opens up with a keyboard line, seemingly interrupted by a looping patch of static that causes the listener to check their cd for scratches. However, just as lead singer Jeanette Faith’s voice appears to sing the first verse, the static coagulates to form a simple, but sensuous, stutter-beat. Over a sparse bass line and keyboard sounds, and that highly infectious static beat, Park Avenue Music builds music that is sophisticated and simple at the same time. Without the use of guitars, “Sun = so bright” conveys a sense of atmosphere, relying on well placed sonic flourishes and smart song writing. However, this mood is not expansive; rather, it is one of stifling loneliness, continuing with the darker thematic undertones of Blue. Like Dreams by Degrees label-mates Sappington, Park Avenue Music’s songs, with their attention to song-crafting supplemented by experimental electric beats, invoke a chilling, staid and ultimately satisfying musical experience.

Lazarus continues the feelings of introspection that run rampant on his stellar “106 words on wishes”. Lazarus’ contribution to Blue is more conventional in its use of a passionate, solitary voice singing over a variety of picked acoustic guitar. However, “106 words on wishes” is so much more than a conventional blues song. Lazarus’ voice is full of equal parts grit and sincerity as he croons lines like “hold onto dreams that will hold onto you”, while the guitars strum softly in an almost improvisational manner. Lazarus, then, does not interpret blue as a color of dejection. Instead, form the depths of his soul, Lazarus offers hope, and “106 words on wishes” comes across as a beautiful and inspirational ode to the color and mood of blue.

The Stratford 4, with their signature dense shoegaze sound, close off the single contributions of Blue with their cover of Mazzy Star’s “Blue Light”. Having garnered much attention from press and fans with the droning rock of their two latest full-length releases “The Revolt Against the Tired Noises” and “Love and Distortion”, the Stratford do not disappoint with “Blue Light”. The song sees the band in a mellower mood, as lead singer Chris Streng sings in a lower octave atop a slow tempo buzz of layered guitars. “Blue Light” languidly moves towards its instrumental epiphany, and almost 7 minutes after the first guitar chimes, the song fades majestically.

Blue also contains a dizzying array of talent in the other tracks featured on the cd. Other artists who contribute tracks on Blue include: Your Friend, Vela, L’Altra, Sir, Vetiver, Rivulets, and John Davis, with each artist casting their own interpretation of blue. While the styles of the songs range from slowcore (Rivulets), to soundscapes (John Davis), to stylistic subgenres that haven’t even been invented yet, like loop-folk (Your Friend), the pieces suit each other well as they are tied together in the source of their inspiration.

Placed strategically in between different tracks on Blue are instrumental interludes composed by Colophon. Colophon, also known as Jefre Cantu-Ledesma (Tarentel, Joshua Torres), dazzled music audiences in 2002 with his gorgeously and intricately crafted Dreams by Degrees release Spring. On Blue, Colophon, (who also acted as the curator of Blue and was responsible for sequencing the tracks), sought to bring a sense of unity to Blue with his instrumental ruminations. And with tracks like “Cobalt”, “Powder” and “Midnight”, Colophon accomplishes his goal. Rather than providing a pause that merely prepares the listener for the next track, Colophon’s compositions lull and soothe, while gently leading the listener on a journey that integrates the varying tracks on Blue. Using guitars, field recordings, key boards, and other looped sounds, Colophon shapes a sense of introspection, contemplation and longing.

The Art:

As with the Seasons collection, the music on Blue is only part of the genius of fledgling label Dreams by Degrees. Along with the transcendent sounds found in Blue, Autumn Whitehurst contributes artwork that conveys the same sense of tranquility and wistfulness that the music does. Her artwork, with simultaneous references the sea, music, and dreaming, successfully unites the feel of the Blue project, as well as the overall vision of Dreams by Degrees. Whitehurst accomplishes this, of course, with a healthy serving of blue.

The Words:

William Trevor Montgomery, along with contributing music to Blue under the moniker of Lazarus, also contributes an exclusive poem which is included in the liner notes. The poem, set at the shore of the Pacific Ocean, vaguely narrates Montgomery’s insight into music and life. Montgomery handles his writing in a very natural, unforced way, and his imagery further integrates the overall concept of Blue.

Taken together as a whole, Blue is project of numerous and varied artists working together to create a unified, and often astounding vision. Each element of Blue compliments each other so smoothly, giving the project a sense of being more of a concept album, and less a sense of being solely a compilation. Blue brilliantly and consistently accomplishes its goal of casting the color in a new light, making for a fascinating aural and visual experience.

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