'/> Uncommon Hours: Eco-band Soular takes back the tradition of musical activism in its debut album, ‘Take It Back’
Blogging on culture, politics, and the environment since 2008.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Eco-band Soular takes back the tradition of musical activism in its debut album, ‘Take It Back’

Take It Back: A (mildly desultory) Review-Essay
By Bob Sommer

“… if we’re looking around for someone else to get on the job we might just look over our shoulders and find we’re looking into a mirror at our own sorry selves.”

So it’s a bunch of tree-huggers all squeezed into my then thirteen-year-old Jeep. It’s a year ago and we’re headed west on I-70 for a Sierra Club meeting in Topeka on a cool Saturday morning. Outside Kansas rolls by with the sun behind us, still low on the horizon, throwing splintery shadows across fields of corn stubble. In back one tree-hugger reads the newspaper. Up front sit me and Craig Wolfe, who wanted to sit up front because he’s a big guy and the seats in back are tight and our friend didn’t care who sat up front or in back, so Craig’s up front.

Click the image to visit Soular online
We’re talking. I’m asking about his music. Back in THE DAY—which for both of us is the sixties and seventies, THE DAY, that is, before the music died for a decade while machine-generated pop insanity called disco throbbed and shook most of our brains into all manner of weirdness, like believing “greed is good,” solar panels on the White House are bad, and big hair is beautiful, so forth, so THE DAY was the metonymic day before all that—and, to complete the sentence, back then Wolfe was a rock ’n roller. He played in a band called Amdahl Wolfe, doing gigs four-five nights a week all over Kansas City and beyond. It was THE DAY.

But THE DAY passed and then came life, and Wolfe got into the construction business, building passive solar houses and doing other tree-hugger stuff, including plunging into the Sierra Club in Kansas in a big way. I’ve known him for seven-eight years now. I do tree-hugger stuff too. We’re all about averting mankind from his/her/our collective manic suicidal race into annihilation as we gobble up every square foot of land, spew the black goo that used be dinosaurs and 250-million-year-old trees into the air and water, and basically torture ourselves with rage for more and more and more STUFF.

But so back to Wolfe & THE DAY. Sometime about six months or something before our ride to Topeka he sent me a link to a song he wrote and played and sang. Gorgeous stuff. Song called “Solar Prayer.” I click on the link, stare at the psychedelic waves on my screen’s Mr. Softy Media Player, and I’m mesmerized, not by the jittery micro-compressed rainbow patterns of ones and zeroes oozing all over the screen—but by the music. This is good stuff. Two chords is all. As the title says, a prayer—no chorus, no bridge—a chant, a plea, full of passion and recognition. We’re fucking up our planet—help us, please help us, we need help so we can all GET IT—and we need to GET IT now.

I call Heather over to the computer. She listens, ignores the psychedelic eye candy. Listens. She’s hooked too. Yes, very good stuff. Here, check out this lyric from “Solar Prayer”:

Sun of our Earth,
Give us food and warmth to grow.
And Sun, for the children,
Give them time, the time to know.

This is sincere. Sun, Earth, Children. Irony would resonate about as well as jokes do when the subject is the Lincoln or Kennedy assassinations. Just bad taste is what it would be, and there’s none of it here. Sincerity and passion are the only way to sing—and Wolfe brings both to the tune. (Spoiler alert: link to samples at the end of my meandering tour through Wolfe World, so just be patient.)

So I shoot Wolfe a line—digital writing (I have no idea how this actually works; it’s really amazing, isn’t it?), an email, that is, zip it over to the Wolfe Computer in another county in a blink: Have you, I ask, I say, have you ever wondered, I query, if THIS is how you can do your bit, channel the tree-hugger, make everyone say stop hey what’s that sound what’s goin’ down, we’re messing this up bad and we need to fix it, so have you, I ask, ever thought that this, this music that you’ve been bottling up and hiding away, is how you can get that message, get it on through?

Randy Deutch and Craig Wolfe

Something like that. Email’s deleted, gone, digital blotto, extinct. The better to help me misremember, but it was along those lines is how I remember it. So but now, coming around back to the Jeep and the ride to Topeka. … Up until this historic ride Wolfe’s been pounding away all these months, writing tunes, singing, playing with his good friend and über-excellent bass player from Amdahl Wolfe days, Randy Deutch, doing coffee houses, fundraisers for tree-hugging empaths, big gig for the Sierra Club to help raise money, so forth. He’s on it, doing it. New songs, new guitar picks, new band called Soular—appropriately, suitably, just the right title, what else would they be?

So in the Jeep Wolfe says to me, turning my way, significantly, squealing the seat cushion as he turns his big frame, giving me a significant look, that is, eyebrows raised kind of look, he says, in answer to my question about the music, which was a while back, so it’s easy to lose track, he says, You remember what you said (which his point of reference was me writing that digital line or two, asking the significant and fatal question, the kind of question that ruins lives, changes history, generally disrupts the well-being of otherwise contented and well-adjusted people). Well, so maybe it wasn’t me. This is not all about me, is it? And besides, bass-player Randy, I learned, had already been after him, and probably others too from back in THE DAY, which his THE DAY was lived in a different place than my THE DAY, so Randy and all of Wolfe’s other various significant people in his life have history together and are thereby more entitled to interfere with his life than I, and they should therefore also accept responsibility for whatever disruptions and malcontent finally result and for which I emphatically exempt myself from any responsibility. Let it be on their heads, whatever comes from Wolfe’s new gig—and let them have the glory, too, I say, when he succeeds. It is right and just and a good and joyful thing—so be it.

So what we have now is MUSIC. A debut CD called Take It Back by Wolfe’s new band Soular. Wolfe wants it back, wants you to take it back, wants us all to TAKE IT BACK because it’s time to be done with fouling our nest and that sort of nastiness, which is what acidic oceans and polluted air and denuded forests and extinct species cumulatively amount to: THE NEST BEFOULED! By greed. By moronic behavior. By acting like fools. Time to TAKE IT BACK.

Okay, enough. Let’s talk about Wolfe’s tunes:

Corporations and politicians are low-hanging fruit, fish in a barrel, other similar and equally meaningless clichés. Name your own. They’re like that Far Side cartoon in which two deer are having a chat in the woods in the middle of hunting season and one deer says to the other, “Bummer of a birthmark, Phil,” referring (you’ve probably already guessed—you’re ahead of me) to the bull’s eye target on Phil-the-deer’s otherwise snowy white furry chest. So that’s not where Wolfe aims—and he’d never shoot a deer anyway, but he does know where the birthmark bull’s eye target on the soft snowy white fur of the corporations and their employee-politicians is, and that would be you and me. So he aims at us, challenging us to get busy and don’t just stand there and watch while the waters rise and the wasteland moves in on us like Birnam Forest creeping up on Macbeth’s castle, Dunsinane, which, you already know, did not work out well for Macbeth.

Songs like “Stand Up” and the album’s title song “Take It Back” urge us to take action:

So set you heart on fire.
And raise our banner high in the air….
I’m tellin’ you, it’s bigger than we thought. The planet’s getting hot.
Doin’ nothing is crime. We’re running out of time.

A crime! Complicity! It’s our own fault if we don’t act. And We’re running out of time. The lyrics are direct, the metaphors easy. We need to get on it.

Similarly “Book of the Heart” reminds us that if we’re looking around for someone else to get on the job we might just look over our shoulders and find we’re looking into a mirror at our own sorry selves staring back at us like why are you just standing there looking at a mirror. Take yourself a selfie, delete it, get over yourself, and get outside where you can do some good.

Only you can say I’ll change it.
No one else to arrange it.

Several tunes take up the theme of generational responsibility. Oh yes, what about the children? How are we going to explain this mess to them? Thing 1 and Thing 2 R Us. Mom and Dad will be home any minute! It’s a shithouse in here, and we’ve got to clean it up!

“You Are Young” speaks to the children. It is they who will live to see the results of accelerating climate change on planet Earth, rising waters, turbulent weather, drought, famine, extinct species. Sound biblical? Wolfe would have us know that that’s not overstating it. But he brings a lyrical quality to the song that derives from its gentle waltz beat and the rhythmic accent of arpeggiated chords on his tremelo guitar. Sorrowfully delivered in a minor key, “You Are Young” is an apology to innocents who’ve had no hand in shaping the world they will inherit. If there’s such a thing as a power lullaby—(a musical oxymoron, I concede, hereby trademarked, etymological derivation: power ballad)—this is it, offering a surprising turn when children’s voices break into the chorus forming a responding canon:

Where do our children go?
(children) Please help us to see which way to go.
Is it enough to say we just don’t know?
(children) No, No! Don’t you tell us now you don’t know.
Who else will they sadly watch fade away? (children) We don’t want to watch our world slip away.

Ask what kind of music is on Take It Back and Wolfe answers in one word, “Rock.” But no, no. That’s too easy. The album travels byways of jazz, folk, and country (thankfully for my taste only a smidge of the latter), and the arrangements include creative uses of violin and cello, as well as some tasteful choral work to accent words and phrases in surprising ways.

Using music (or any art form) to take up a cause won’t work if the music (or art) isn’t good, but it is. Wolfe is a fine songwriter and arranger, bringing captivating innovations and chord changes to his songs. His guitar work doesn’t dazzle for its own sake but rather tells the story of each song, and his vocals bring passion to his lyrics.

I first heard several of these tunes played live with just Wolfe and Deutch performing. The addition of a full band on Take It Back has enriched the music without overwhelming it. Notably, Kenny Hines’s drum work is lively and interesting, avoiding the repetition of just carrying a beat, more suggestive of jazz than rock. Wolfe was also fortunate to add keyboard player Joe Miquelon, whose regular gig is with the internationally known Celtic band, The Elders. Guitar player and keyboardist Jim Huber adds depth to the album, while cellist Sasha Groschang, violinist Laurel Morgan, and vocalists Monique Danielle and Maya Thies give the music a creative edge that takes the music beyond the boundaries of rock. Bass player Randy Deutch contributes strong and soulful melodic work in several tunes, especially ”Stand Up.”
In the 60s and 70s—in THE DAY, that is—music was the anthem of change for the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements. It would be oversimplifying to say there are no musical voices besides Wolfe’s for the environmental crisis we face today. Rather, they are mostly suffocated by corporate media, which would keep us in an Orwellian nightmare of redundancy, listening to the same forty tunes played over and over in the same place on the radio dial wherever our radios happen to be in the U.S., and too by the endless demand for mega-hit ear candy by the likes of Lady Gaga and Britney Spears to churn through the digital pipeline of iTunes. But even among singer-songwriters who take up social and political causes, there are few as myopic as Wolfe in focusing on climate change and the environment. Perhaps, though, passion such as his, which has found its channel in music, will break through with its strong message of environmental activism and the power of each individual to choose a better future for planet Earth and the generations to come.

To hear samples of Take It Back, visit Soular’s website at www.soular.co.

Bob Sommer blogs at Uncommon Hours. His second novel, A Great Fullness, is forthcoming from Aqueous Books. An excerpt from his memoir, a work-in-progress entitled Losing Francis: One Family’s Journey through a Decade of American War, appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Rathalla Review.

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