As a reviewer or critic you’re supposed to provide some sort of objective opinion on whatever it is you’re writing about. You look at a group or person’s work within the context of the genre they work in and ask yourself how they stack up against others like them. After a few years of doing this you get so it becomes almost rote. However the difficulty comes when you come across somebody who won’t let you be objective. You start gushing all over the page about how damn amazing somebody is and nobody is going take your review seriously, it will dismissed as the ravings of some fan. Well, even music critics can be fans. I know that sounds like a stretch to some of you. It’s cool to think critics hate music and only exist to run down your favourites or to say nasty things about people you like. Well, I can be as nasty as the next person. Ask me how I feel about the music industry in general or some of the so called celebrities/singers who somehow are referred to as artists and watch me go. But I also genuinely love music.
Normally I find a way to list the reasons I like someone’s work without crossing over the line so the review becomes a fan letter. However, for some reason when it comes to Xavier Rudd, all I can ever come up with is “holy shit, this guy is fucking awesome”. While that’s a lot shorter than my reviews tend to run (and according to some that’s a positive) it doesn’t really tell you much about him, his music, or why I think he’s so great. The problem is Rudd is one of the few musical artists around these days who I react to on a purely emotional level. I’ve been listening to a downloaded copy of his latest release, Spirit Bird, coming out on Side One Dummy records June 5 2012, for about a week now and I still haven’t been able to figure out how to put into words the effect the CD has on me.
I could tell you that Rudd is an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist who plays slide guitar, regular guitar, percussion, drums, and the indigenous Australian instrument the yidakis (referred to as didgeridoo by Europeans). Not only does he play all these instruments, but when he appears in concert he is set up so he can be playing as many as possible as once. Pictures of him on stage show him sitting in the centre of a construct literally bristling with instruments: a row of yidakis in the front, top hat snares off to each side, stomp box and bass drum pedals at his feet, and assorted percussion scattered around within easy reach. Then he begins to sing.
His vocal range is equally impressive as he ranges from a forceful alto right up to almost falsetto on occasion. Yet, unlike others, when he forges up into the higher altitudes of his scale the quality of his vocal expression doesn’t change. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect. Most people have enough difficulty obtaining the high notes they are satisfied merely with reaching them and usually end up sacrificing expression in the attempt. With Rudd, the higher he goes the more he seems to be opening himself up emotionally and spiritually for his audience. It’s like his connection to the heart and soul of what he is singing intensifies the further up the scale he goes. In some cases when people reach into the higher ranges, it starts to become uncomfortable to the ear and the sound makes you wince. Somehow Rudd seems to bypass the ear and heads directly to your heart the further up the scale he climbs.
In the past there has been a decided reggae influence to Rudd’s music and traces of that can still be heard on Spirit Bird. However, over the course of his career he has evolved from being the accompaniment for surfers and late night beach parties (not only were some of his songs featured in the movie Surfer Dude, he wrote parts of the movie’s score) with an environmental conscience to singing about having a spiritual bond with the planet and the compassion required to create it. While every song on Spirit Bird is related to this subject in some manner or another, not once does it feel like he’s preaching to his listeners or even telling them this is how they should live. Instead he give us his vision of the potential for a better world.
From songs like the almost completely instrumental “Lioness Eye”, which opens the disc and captures something of the beauty and power of nature in its wild abandonment, to the haunting simplicity of the disc’s first single, “Follow The Sun”, and its description of the life cycle, he does his best to show us the beauty and wonder that surrounds us every day. The closest he comes to being political is the brief mention he makes of Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, the environmental protection group who exposes illegal whaling and other maritime piracy being carried out in the name of cosmetics and fake natural health care products, in the song “Creating A Dream” which closes the disc.
In some ways this song lies at the heart of the whole album. It’s simple chorus of “Please, patience please, patience please/I’m creating a dream/Please, patience please, patience please/I’m creating a dream”, follows lists of things he asks us to imagine (“Imagine industry just had to obey”) that would make the world a better place. The lists don’t just deal with issues either, he also includes “Imagine the heart could just shed its skin” and other lyrics which talk about the human condition and freeing ourselves from the need for confrontation and over-thinking everything. Simply reading quotes from the song, you might be tempted to dismiss it as over simplified utopian idealism, but you have to hear his voice to fully appreciate it.
He knows he’s wishing for the impossible, that these things can’t be accomplished just by wishing, which is why he asks for our patience. He’s taking a moment to dream about a better world and expressing the vision that sustains him in the face of the overwhelming opposition, and in some ways even worse, the apathy, that most feel towards and about change. If you don’t have a dream than you have nothing to shoot for, and if you’re going to dream you might as well dream huge.
The press release sent out for Spirit Bird talks about its hard hitting environmental message. I think that misrepresents the nature of the recording. It makes it sound like its a collection of uncompromising politically motivated tunes when nothing could be further from the truth. This is merely a guy using every tool at his disposal to pour out his hopes and visions for a better world. His songs aren’t ringing denunciations of anybody’s lifestyle, or of corporate greed destroying the earth. He’s not preaching to the converted to make them feel good about themselves or trying to make anybody feel guilty because they drive a car. Instead, without any false sentimentality or whinging, he opens his heart to listeners to let them hear and see his vision of the potential we all share for creating a different world.
So, there you go, I tried. But that’s the best I can do, and I don’t know if I was able to capture what it is about Rudd’s music and songs that work such magic on me. My wife says he’s one of the few artists today who has the ability to crack her wide open, to break through the shell we all wear to protect us against having too much hope or from having our dreams crushed one too many times. It’s not like he waves a magic wand or anything. He sings with compassion and love and it shines through in every song, no matter what’s its about or whether he’s playing electric guitar and rocking out or creating instrumental magic with his yidakis. Listen to his music and find out for yourself. You might end up thinking I’m full of shit or, hopefully, you’ll come away with the same feeling of contentment at finding somebody out there able to articulate those dreams for a better world you’d forgotten and had buried away in the deepest recesses of your soul.