In This Time
Noble Lake Mourns Man's Heyday With Stirring Folk Music
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Noble Lake songwriter James Sarsgaard enters the den of a Hampden coffeehouse illuminated by an early spring sunbeam. Customers restlessly look up from their laptops and books at the standout folkie with long brown hair and a bushy beard waiting in line for a drink.
Sarsgaard, 30, has come alone because his principal collaborators, multi-instrumentalists and backing vocalists Andy Stack and Jenn Wasner, both 21, are on the road performing as Wye Oak. "Jenn and Andy are the people I really love playing with," Sarsgaard says. "They sort of started this band with me."
Initially, however, Sarsgaard had played a couple of solo shows under the moniker Noble Lake and self-released a CD-R EP that he recorded with friends in North Carolina. Being able to appreciate how busy Wasner and Stack presently are with Wye Oak, Sarsgaard enjoys the flexibility of folk music. His songs can either swell with the harmonious arrangements of his fellow players or cut through bare-boned with just his guitar or banjo and tenor vocals.
Heyday, Noble Lake's first full-length, released in March by local label Creative Capitalism, presents the band as a melodic, droning powerhouse capable of experimenting with Carter Family-style country, textured bluegrass, and folk balladry.
Sarsgaard writes the music and lyrics, and then Wasner and Stack join in to give the tunes added texture in the form of multipart vocal harmonies and drawn-out, meditative jams. "They help flesh the songs out," Sarsgaard says. On the album's opener, "The Galley," for instance, Stack's stumbling bass and Wasner's harmonium lurk behind the melody with a gothic gloom that rivals the work of Philadelphia's Espers. What's most intriguing is that the band recorded this layered work with very little overdubbing.
"We recorded [Heyday] pretty much in a weekend, live, in a big old decaying mansion in Towson," Sarsgaard says. He goes on to describe the recording four piece's setup in a spacious room of the house: Stack on upright bass, Wasner switching from banjo to harmonium to guitar, and E.J. Shaull-Thompson drumming, while Sarsgaard sang lead and picked the core melodies on his choice of strings. A friend of the band, Tim Kearley, recorded the eight songs for free in the winter of 2006.
"We tracked it all live except for the vocals and the piano, which were overdubbed later," Sarsgaard says. "It was cool. But definitely looking back on it--it being a live recording--I had to live with a lot of things that I didn't like"--a too-fast tempo, for example. "It was a jam-packed weekend of live recording, and when it was over, it was like, well, that's our recording," he says. Ultimately, though, Sarsgaard feels that Heyday "captures the spirit of the band pretty well."
Beginning with a count of bug-buzzing bowed bass, the reflective track "These Days" quickly picks up step with lightly fingered guitar, sparse banjo, and a tambourine and snare drum smacked softly by brushes. Sarsgaard's risen voice sails as his romantic lyrics weigh the "rivers of poison" and "vanishing scenes" against "golden" times and "memories." When he sings, "We were rejoicing and I knew this would be our year," the arrangement of this simple folk song is so delicately polished the words stand out as if sharpened by sunlight.
"I think probably as long as I've played music, I've gravitated more toward acoustic music," Sarsgaard says. "I've always really liked the format. It lends itself really well to storytelling, which is a big part of the band. And it's a more stripped-down way to connect with the audience, which I really like." He cites getting into Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits at an early age as reasons his musical tastes turned away from punk and rock.
Thematically, Heyday considers the ways in which human beings' heyday on this planet may be ending, by looking at the downward spirals of close friends and fictional characters and drastic environmental changes. "A couple of the songs [on Heyday] are personal narratives about people who are in destructive relationships," Sarsgaard says. "The song `Yovnger's Elegy,' for example, is about a guy who has a drug problem and winds up killing himself while running from the police."
The last few songs, including "Birdsongs" and "Heyday," are meditations on environmental issues. Sarsgaard says that he wrote "Heyday" after the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina, reflecting on what he perceived to be a dramatic turning point in terms of people's relationship to the planet. "I saw things as heading down a radically different path," he says. "And I was coming to terms with the fact that this era of our existence is going to change--the world is definitely changing."
Without a doubt, "Heyday" is the most touching song on the album, carrying a defeated beauty of guitar loosely supported by watery harmonium and a sludgy string bass. And Sarsgaard and Wasner harmonizing practically brings tears to the eyes when they sing, "It seemed the glaciers come undone and then my house was gone/ under the wide ocean, under the summer sun."
But despite any sense of impending doom in the songs of Noble Lake, Sarsgaard's tender voice and lyrics fight to rejoice in the good of today. Performing solo or with friends, he tours this summer in support of the record, stringing memories and anxieties into some of Baltimore's finest contemporary folk music. H