Most of you will probably have seen at least something of Ricky Gervais’ BBC comedy ‘The Office’. As my friends would no doubt verify, I have rather an obsession with the programme. I feel that, on television at least, it represents the very best of observational and linguistic comedy. I find it funny because I see in it the exaggeration of something I can identify with – indeed, at times, the observations about life in an average office are so close to the bone that I have the cringing desire to avert my eyes. It also carries emotional power as a piece of television because the unfolding love story between two of the characters, Tim and Dawn, manages to inject some poignant hope into a very dreary world, without falling into gushing sentimentality. I can watch, and very much enjoy, the farcical slapstick of ‘Fawlty Towers’ or the amusing predictability of ‘Frasier’, but they seem to me to act well beneath the observational depth of ‘The Office’. That’s not to say they’re not as funny. I think only that it serves to illustrate that some of us are attracted to escapism comedy that suspends our disbelief and throws us into what the writers of ‘The Simpsons’ would call an "elastic band universe" where common-sense laws need not apply, whereas others amongst us find humour in a parody that hits much closer to home.

I think the same sort of thing goes on when one listens to music lyrics. On the way to see Sam Beam in the guise of Iron and Wine at the Shepherds Bush Empire I rather dismissed Beam’s lyrics when I commented, much to the chagrin of my friends who really are devotees of his music, that his earlier albums were – dare I say it – a little boring, because his lyrics lacked the substance to hold attention over four minutes of what were undoubtedly beautiful but - I would venture - simplistic melodies. Having listened to one of his albums with a friend earlier in the week and watched her skip forward each track after three minutes or so I was confident my observation was an astute one. My appraisal met with little satisfaction, so I pressed forward; "I mean, c’mon, his lyrics don’t mean anything… surely we want lyrics that we can identify with ?" But in response I didn’t get what I was expecting; "No, no, I love that he writes these amazing lyrics about such odd things, that he can write about nothing…” And so, there, I suppose, is the difference.

On the Sunday beforehand I’d gone to see Scottish singer-songwriter Jackie Leven in Bath. He is both incredibly funny and intensely charismatic. His songs are exceptional, comprising of a mix of quite forceful folk numbers strummed with fervour on a well-travelled guitar and softer, fingerpicked numbers infused with the hard lessons of a hard life. The music would confidently stand alone, but the performance is so much more. Leven’s spoken introductions, which move between comedy and lament, effortlessly embrace the audience and wrap them up cosily in the tales behind the songs composition. The stories evoke an attachment and enjoyment of unknown music that I’ve never felt matched.

Leven epitomises the kind of lyrics that I love. The sort that make you both glimpse the world through someone else’s eyes, but yet remember the times when you’ve had similar feelings for which you’ve always lacked the language to articulate. The consequence was a folk performance of the finest quality. How after that, could Iron and Wine compare? I need to give Beam his fair credit. His whispered vocals are chilling and intriguing. He performed with a hushed eight-piece band; percussion and a double bass supported by accordion, violin and xylophone. He was also ably supported by his sister’s vocals and together they found an impressive harmony.

The sound mirrored that of his latest album, 'The Shepherd’s Dog', and suggests the influence his recent collaboration with Calexico may have had in adding texture to his music. The effect was a soft, soothing, malty tone, perhaps something like a good pint of Guinness; well suited to the expansive beard that Beam sports. The material, especially ‘Carousel’ and the encore ‘He Lays in the Reins’ was carefully constructed and thoughtfully expressed.

Sadly, it just couldn’t enthral me. I imagined it would be the sort of music you’d want on if you liked the idea of ‘background music’, not because it lacked musical substance – that would be unfair – but because I didn’t feel a listener would garner much more were they to apply devoted attention. Surely, the music we enjoy most is the music that impassions us, and that’s why there is no doubt I’ll be heading to London in December to see Leven again.











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Commenting On: Shepherds Bush Empire, London, 30/10/2007 - Iron and Wine








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