(Un)Familiar Places

It only seemed like 2000 was the year of Limp Bizkit, Eminem, and Britney. Music of subtlety and substance was indeed made. This was some of it:

Jill Scott has twice stopped me in my tracks. The videos for "Gettin' In the Way" and "A Long Walk" depict Scott—big, brown, beautiful—as an earthy, arty queen of her Philadelphia neighborhood. That is, just the opposite of everything MTV has become (gangsta millionaires, blondes with abs, yawn-inducing riff-rock). The art and soul of Philly permeate Scott's songs. Along with the Roots and Jazzyfatnastees, Scott is re-inventing and re-invigorating Philly soul, plus the stale conventions of jazz, hip-hop, and R&B. Who Is Jill Scott? That was my thought, as well as her album's title. Her primary concern is the word made flesh and all the shocks that flesh is heir to. Kind of the way a future reverend named Al Green was concerned—as well as Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and their disciple Prince.

The first CD by Pedro the Lion, It's Hard To Find A Friend, was sort of a gift. Actually, a friend didn't want it. All he could tell me of it was that the label (Made In Mexico) might be a cousin of Tooth & Nail, the Christian indie based in Seattle. It remained shrink-wrapped for months—then I found myself playing it over and over. The presentation—clean guitar, bass, and drums beneath the unhurried voice of songwriter David Bazan—is unadorned, almost puritan in its economy. An excellent follow-up EP, Progress, includes "June 18, 1976," which tells the story of a beautiful, suicidal new mother. The second full-length, Winners Never Quit, recently appeared on the Jade Tree label, home to the Promise Ring, Joan of Arc, and other quasi-punk bands who get lumped under the tag "emo" (as in, to emote). In the case of Pedro the Lion, Bazan simply tells his stories and you, the listener, do the emoting. These songs deliver the resonance and calm brutality of Flannery O'Connor if she had just a guitar and four minutes to make her point.

Arvo Pärt began his career behind the Iron Curtain, composing for Soviet radio and television. His early symphonies and other works were complex, somewhat prickly affairs. Yet now Pärt's music is known for spaciousness, clarity, and intense beauty. The transformation followed his immigration to Berlin, a fallow period of contemplation, and his immersion in the Orthodox style of chant. The composition in 1976 of "Für Alina" marked Pärt's break from serialism. Every ornamental element is stripped away, revealing deceptively simple lines from piano and violin, more silence than sound. 1978 brought "Spiegel im Spiegel," and together they make up Alina, released last year on ECM New Series. These gossamer pieces feel barely real and yet, in the hearing, inevitable.

ARRIVING IN A similar place from a different direction, the self-titled album by Mark Hollis may be the quietest record ever filed under "Rock." Released domestically last year, the album breaks a seven-year silence from the former voice of Talk Talk. That band started out as a pleasant, if disposable, new wave outfit that scored hits on both sides of the Atlantic with "It's My Life" and "Happiness is Easy." Talk Talk might have blown up Duran Duran-style, or remained a mere historical footnote, except that (as with Pärt) Something Happened. Hollis, notoriously tight-lipped, won't comment, and speculation still rages among the fanatical devotees of the band. Yet clearly the band's latter albums, Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock, were commercial suicide.

Painted in swirls of Hammond organ, woodwinds, strings, and Mark Hollis' reedy voice, only the merest ghost of the former pop band hovers over hymns like "I Believe in You" and "Ascension Day." Artistically peerless, both records have been enviously name-checked by groups ranging from Fugazi to Pink Floyd. On his solo album, Hollis sands away another layer, closing in on bare, contemplative silence occasionally punctuated by clarinet, piano, and that distinctive voice that sketches portraits of "The Colour of Spring," "A Life (1895-1915)," and "A New Jerusalem."

Godspeed You Black Emperor! is anything but spare. A nine-piece outfit from Toronto, it falls somewhere between orchestra and commune. Despite the logistical horror of touring with such a large ensemble (dual bassists and percussionists, three guitarists, cello and violin, plus projectionists and a sound engineer), they're road hogs. The lonely interstate between broken urban jumbles also provides a template for their musical approach. Their recent album "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven" is divided into long thematic movements stitched from shorter pieces.

On "Monheim," the cellist plucks a hypnotic pattern under a languid violin line. Then the rising sound of an operatic diva in full throat is revealed, somehow, as a guitar, which leads the charge up a sternum-rattling crescendo. The album's abundant original ideas are leavened with subtle musical quotes from Sinatra, Henryk Gorecki, the Eagles, J. S. Bach, and "Amazing Grace"—almost a survey of the car radio dial. GYBE! drifts through the gap between the (North) American dream and its waking reality: lost factories and farms, religion, and endless highways to nowhere.

Bob Massey lives in Arlington, Virginia, and covers music and technology for The Washington Post, Spin, and other publications.

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