by DJ El Toro
For many years, my favorite album to nap to was Psychocandy by The Jesus And Mary Chain. For all its feedback and squall, the Reid brothers’ full-length debut never failed to lull me to sleep, while other, gentler music kept me tossing and turning. My theory is that Psychocandy inspires deep listening; you have to let the distortion and white noise wash over you in order to savor the sweet melodies and harmonies at the center of the storm. My conscious brain is a cranky brat. Getting it to shut down requires extraordinary distractions. “Just Like Honey,” “Never Understand,” and the rest could pull it off.
This weekend, I found a sacred equivalent. And although the peace I needed required keeping my eyes open–and focused–it was an old-fashioned vinyl LP that proved my salvation. Grappling to concentrate on some long overdue financial paperwork, and desperate for a suitable soundtrack, I slapped on Life Is A Problem, a collection of 20th century American sanctified blues recordings compiled by our Portland friends at Mississippi Records (and annotated by Mike McGonigal of YETI).
Now some of the selections were familiar, at least on a fundamental level. “A Night in the House of Prayer” by Louisiana preacher Rev. Lonnie Farris uses “When The Saints Go Marching In” as its jumping-off point, yet the execution is so fevered and frenzied, my noggin had trouble reconciling its well-known content with the outrageous execution. Ditto for the rendition of “Pray On, My Child,” featuring the slightly dissonant, close vocal harmonies of the Willamete Gospel Singers, and an unhinged instrumental run through “Amazing Grace” that closes the record with what sounds like a disintegrating guitar being held together solely by faith.
Part of my brain recognized the source material: from Bible Study Camp, long-ago church services, and a steady diet of Preachin’ The Blues. But the roughshod performances of Life Is A Problem allowed these songs–familiar and not so–to engage my mind and spirit in a new way. I wasn’t exactly saved, but I had a moment of clarity, and was able to hunker down and, within a couple of repeated spins, polish off the onerous grown-up task that sought to hijack my beautiful Sunday.
How odd. I don’t think of myself as a religious person. And yet once again, when I sought peace and rejuvenation, it was the songs of Jesus and Mary that redeemed me.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.