Remember the chorus to War by soul singer Edwin Starr? “War!” he growled before asking, “What is it good for? Absolutely nothin’! (sing it again!) Memorable phrase, isn’t it? There’s a brilliance to its structure. Using this sentence form of “Word, Question about Value of Said Word, then Answer,” we can have a form of deductive reasoning called, logically, Edward Starring. If we take the complimentary argument found in War, then Edward Star it, we get this provoking statement: “Peace! What is it good for? Absolutely everything (sing it again!) It’s like R&B Aristotle.
Extend it to any subject you’d like. Here’s a musical example: “Bridal Chorus! What is it good for? Weddings (sing it again!)” Or: “Amazing Grace! What is it good for? Definitely not dancing (sing it again!)”
But these judgment calls are as debatable with music as with War and Peace (both the concepts and the book). Often music is all about the context of when it’s played or performed. Therefore, an easier question most of us can answer, however subjectively, isn’t “what’s certain music good for?” but when is it good? At what time does this song/album/compilation/playlist fit in our life?
Which brings us to Shifting Sands, a collection of dreamy music by troubadour Alex Seel and hewn from the dual traditions of Nick Drake and Ram-era Paul McCartney with a touch of early Cat Stevens. Seel’s musical origins have a mythic vibe. He learned his craft on a coast in Dingle, Ireland, living in a campervan while gaining experience and improvement as a songwriter and performer with his band of minstrel friends.
One pictures him plucking away at some new progression as the ocean clouds shuffled in lightly, and that’s probably where his music probably works best for some people. His art is not for intense jogging, for a beautifully loud day at the park or a festive parade with company. It is contemplative, smooth, pure. It needs silence and utmost attention to let his songs breathe in their fitting environment.
But don’t they breathe when you let them. The album’s technical aspects are great and featuring straightforward production that allows for us to focus on the music, and on the singer’s strengths. Seel is talented, blessed with a lovely fingerpicking style and a uniquely rickety tenor that displays a proclivity for clean swoops to the next note. His voice is his own, and he phrases the material in a way that recalls a rarer kind of singer, the type of lover who lets things go and even opens the door for the tyrannical muse. There is no snark. Perhaps this would have come in handy on The Ox and Thorns Not the Rose, emotionally complex songs, but his mode of expression fits the material.
Speaking of Thorns Not the Rose, it is a lovely, sorrowful track of blunt self-examination: “A troubled cure for a troubled mind…” Seel reasons, then later on, “If the mirror she holds shows light/ appreciation is all in vain/ shows the parts of you you despise/ take a whole lot of medicine to kill that pain.” As a strangely affecting mixture of a modern confession and Robert Burns poetics, it avoids the cliché its title’s metaphor could have been in a lesser artist’s hands.
Many of his lyrics are opaque, emphasizing nature and the external surroundings that often employ (to use Ginsberg’s line) “chains of flashing images” in lines like “Shaping clay dragons, wind on the window pane, that’s alright.” Monkey’s Tail is a perfect White Album outtake, a nursery rhyme ditty for a campfire escapade that shows the singer’s roots of playing ‘round the midnight embers in Western Ireland with his musician friends. Welcome Back is a most bluesy number. He sounds like he’s channeling unplugged Clapton, forgoing the tired “she did me wrong” chestnut and instead offering an encouraging congratulations for the return of an old friend. The album ends with “There’s a Rhythm,” where Seel, immersed in melancholy music, tells us to dance on in spite of it all, and you actually believe him for a moment.
So, to Edwin Starr this album, we must ask, “Shifting Sands! What is it good for?” Many things, but especially as show-piece for a talented musician with much potential. Follow up question: When is it good? That’s up for debate, but perhaps it’s really good, to quote the recently departed Lou Reed, in that place between thought and expression. And with Shifting Sands, you’re there regardless.
Review by: Shane Kimberlin