Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Patrick Stolley
It was the first device made for playing recorded material - the phonograph was. Thomas Edison mastered the idea of using a stylus and some tinfoil to play back sounds and this invention soon led to phonograph parlors sprouting up in all cities throughout the young country in the late 1800s, in which people could hear recordings from afar on demand. This must have been incredible. It was the start of one day being able to hear the voices of the dead, without having to be haunted. It was the start of not needing to be where the music was being made in person, by real hands connected to working wiring. It didn't require a musician to bring himself to the people.
They could bring him into their own homes when they thought that the time was right, turning what was solely a public spectacle - music and the performance of it - into an intimate activity that could be enjoyed just as easily and with less hassle in the privacy of a home or in one of these parlors, bridging the gap between strictly live and available whenever the feeling struck. These two very different modes of enjoyment of the playing of sounds are at work in the ways of New York band Phonograph, a group that must have thought about these things a long time ago.
There is, within the band's No Depression-era alt-country music, all of the various blushes and touches needed to perform the material without any form of extravagance. There are Matthew Welsh's vocals, a warm and succulent twist of hay baling weather - the sweaty, drippy, humid kind that keeps the birds in the air all day for stopping the wings and slowing down would fry them alive - and the strong prominence of stature that needs just a measure of amplification and his hushed tones could be projected as evenly as those of Jeff Tweedy or Leslie Feist. They are light and airy, but firm and breeze worthy - catching any bit of a current or a gust and then just alighting out and forward.
There is Phil Sterk's effortless pedal steel guitar work that pierces through all of everything and is another way to boil down gold. It creates these beautiful melts that are always properly of the utmost consequence, the flavors that get paid a healthy amount of attention. They can make grown men buckle at the knees just for the swing in the brambles. There's a built-in appreciation there that's the same as when a guy sees a nasty curveball break someone's knees off and slap a catcher's mitt with a dusty, snapping authority. It's an instrument that begs to be heard, but also seen, bringing the live aspect back into the room.
As the two men performed as a duo on this session in the fall of 2007, they were swinging through Iowa and refining how the two could play together and create more of a full sound. It works as the contradictions work. There is Welsh singing very personal - private chambers and bedroom - words and Sterk giving them the ability to be bigger than they would be coming from a single guy and a guitar. Phonograph nimbly brokers its time between double shots Americana and the kind of smoldering vitality that makes people yearn for other people in a way that's best done in the comfort of the home. It's a two-way street that the band leads one down, with Sterk's pedal steel pulling us along by the lapels and the pigtails like a rustic pied piper, giving us the push to feel these things any way we want.
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