The Astral Sounds of Greg Weeksby Fred Cisterna
Plenty of recent pop albums feature fine production, tasteful arranging, and hummable tunes. The drag is that so many of them endlessly wallow in pop’s past glories; they’re based on worn templates—the sounds of another time and another place—that were created decades ago. These pretty yet imitative things can impress with their displays of musical and cultural gamesmanship, but their pleasures are inherently limited. Such discs produce knowing grins, not shivers and tears.
By contrast, Philadelphia-based singer-songwriter Greg Weeks makes music for here and now that’s quite moving. Instead of evoking other people’s sound worlds, he invents his own. Rather than recalling the old tunes, Weeks’s melodies wind through the air in surprising ways. They’re so well shaped you can practically touch them. Hints of Nick Drake and Robert Wyatt may show up in his work, but they’re subsumed within the overall sound. Weeks’s fondness for sixties and seventies prog-rock is apparent: He often employs vintage keyboards associated with the genre. However, instead of using them as retro fetish objects, Weeks takes advantage of their specific timbral qualities: The older instruments become key colors in Weeks’s distinctive sonic palette. The mellotron on “Made,” from Weeks’s second full-length release, Awake Like Sleep (2001, Ba Da Bing!), is a good example. The strange staccato keyboard jabs that dapple the lovely track are unlike anything I’ve ever heard—well, actually they remind me a little of the keyboard on “East Fifth Street,” another song from the same disc. But you get my drift: Weeks’s intriguing touches are completely his own.
Weeks’s arrangements and production are simultaneously spare and lush. Each musical line is smartly sculpted, a strand of finely contoured, highly individual timbre. These lines, sometimes just three or four of them, are combined to create surprisingly rich, and often pleasingly odd, sounds. Listening to the counterpoint of the lines and the textures is like watching skilled actors enacting a great script—the individual characters are fascinating, and so is the whole drama. On “Tin Angel of Death,” from Weeks’s first album, Fire in the Arms of the Sun (1998, Ba Da Bing!), he displays the deft arranging abilities that would come into greater play on Awake Like Sleep. Towards the track’s end, he introduces mellotron (on “flute” setting) and cello. The interplay between the two instruments and Weeks’s acoustic guitar results in gorgeously resonant chamber rock. Rather than being a gratuitous musical tag-on, this section of the song gives instrumental voice to the track’s sentiment.
Weeks is also capable of entrancing listeners with nothing more than his pure voice and lovely fingerings, something he does often on Fire. The album’s barebones tracks do something unusual for the singer/song-writer genre: They create a palpable mood; they don’t have the flat quality that so many man-and-his guitar efforts do. Listening to the performances, you don’t hear only words and plucking; the carefully crafted, moody textures and harmonies concoct richly imagined musical/emotional places.
Malady played a role in shaping the sound of Fire in the Arms of the Sun, the EP Bleecker Station (2000, Keyhole), and Awake Like Sleep. Just when Weeks was heading into the studio to record Fire, he developed tendonitis in his arms and hands. Other health issues, and the fact that he was playing guitar for several hours a day, were contributing factors. Weeks explains how his approach to guitar playing at the time also affected his arms and hands. “I was interested in using standard turning, and all the chords structures that comes with it, but also in opening it up as if I was also simultaneously playing in alternate turnings. I was doing these really far reaches and I was hyper-extending my ligaments, which inflames the issue,” he says. “Recording Fire in the Arms of the Sun was a tough experience because I was feeling so much pain that I wasn’t able to perform the way I would have liked to.”
Despite Weeks’s reservations, Fire remains an impressive debut.
A couple of years later, Weeks assumed his tendonitis had gone away. He started to record demos on a four-track for what he thought was going to be his next album. At the same time, he was also writing eight- to twelve-minute pieces in electric guitar. The overload of musical labor brought on another bout of tendonitis, and Weeks altered his recordings plans. “I decided for a number of different reasons, one of them the tendonitis issue, that I wasn’t going to go into the studio and try and re-record that stuff,” says Weeks, referring to the demos he had been working on. “Emotionally, it felt right to put out the songs as a four-track recording, with its really raw recording technique. Also, I wasn’t in the mood to battle out this pain in my hand and my arms.” Weeks’s home recordings became Bleecker Station, while the longer pieces he was writing remain unrecorded.
As time went on, Weeks continued to be plagued by tendonitis. His playing was limited to a mere one or two days a month. “I’d write three songs in a three-hour period and put the guitar down and come back to it in another month or so,” he says. Weeks, in fact, was having a tough time of it all around. “I was feeling miserable for not writing music, miserable about my job, and New York City in general,” he says. (Weeks had originally moved to New York from Rochester in 1993 to intern at MTC, a gig he says “turned my stomach.”)
A few months later, Weeks happened upon a toy chord organ in a store in the East Village. “I picked that up and brought it back to the awful little studio apartment I was living in. I started writing on it because it was a lot easier on my hands. Almost the entirety of Awake Like Sleep was writing on a Magnus chord organ.” Weeks points out that Wendy Carlos and Italian prog significantly influenced Awake. “The Italian bands really go out there with the moog synthesizers—they cultivate all those crazy sounds. They had a raw aggressive attacks when it came to recording,” he says, admiringly. Weeks also cites sixties/seventies Brit jazz-rock outfit the Soft Machine as an influence. “The [Soft Machine drummer/singer] Robert Wyatt composition ‘Moon in June’ is one of my all time favorite songs, he says. “I love Robert Wyatt’s stuff in general.”
Over the past year, Weeks has learned to manage his tendonitis and is playing guitar more often these days. “It’s knowing where your limitations are,” he says. “I know when I’m pushing too far.” Weeks says, with a touch of humor that his next full-length with be his “rock record.” “But it’s very much a folk record as well,” he adds. “It’s going to have a lot of guitars. Half of it is going to have long drone-y songs fleshed out with other kinds of instrumentation. The other half is going to be acoustic songs where I’m experimenting a lot with different kinds of alternate turnings. There will be a lot of extended pieces that build in ways that are different than how I’ve been building the songs that I’ve been doing up until now.”
For weeks, each album has to find its own voice. “I’m not trying to fine-tune a specific style that is my sound. I’m not going to do album after album [in the same style] and hope that the songs are good enough to keep people interested. I’m more interested in expanding and experimenting with new and different styles while keeping true to the things that I find most interesting in music.
“The biggest thing for me for the next record is the lyrics. I’ve been struggling over the last year or so with the personal as political, rather than the political as political. It seems extremely difficult to say anything political in this day and age without sounding trite or foolish. But it seems all the more important now because people have been doing this self-indulgent, personal-exploration stuff for so long: It was the way of the Nineties.”
Weeks’s latest EP, Slightly West, is out on Acuarela.
FRED CISTERNA writes a spoken-word column for Signal to Noise magazine.