Friday, July 09, 2010

The Ampeater Review - Hank and Pigeon

There is a write-up on Morgan's music on the ampeater review. You can download two of their songs from this site.

AEM110 Hank and Pigeon

New York City, more than any other place I’ve ever lived or visited, isn’t so much an objective location as it is a flexible concept. My New York isn’t Your New York, and it’s definitely not His or Her New York, or god forbid, That Guy’s New York. Most people carve a comfortable space for themselves that’s situated between the extremes of Gotham City’s criminal dystopia, Sex & The City’s 5th ave glitz, and GG Allin’s East Village nest of debauchery. Somewhere in this mess of fictional bubbles is an objective portrait of the city at large that accounts for the millions of people struggling to reconcile their fantastic projections of life in the big city with the reality that most of us wake up, go to work, do some shit, go home, eat some shit, and go to bed. We value good art as a culture because it pulls us just a little bit outside this reality and into the liminal space that separates the daily grind from what we always thought life would be like “when we grew up.” That’s good art, but truly great art keeps us there long enough to grasp whole handfuls of fantasy. It’s a precious thing. The dream isn’t to escape the metropolis but to feel like we’re living inside some highly stylized version of it that could only exist in someone’s head, and for but a moment at that. Filmmakers have it easy, they can literally mold a world and present it to viewers, and writers have hundreds of pages to describe and expand upon their thoughts, but songwriters have a meager 2 to 5 minutes to do the same, and so pop songs seldom grant listeners this level of creative freedom. But when I hear Hank and Pigeon, I imagine two people, living in a New York that’s not mine and can never be mine; a New York in which pigeons become trapped inside apartment walls, in which people stand on opposite street corners talking on the phone, in which songs are written like letters to a friend, and in which all of this can be boiled down into a simple melody.

Morgan Heringer and Alex Wernquest hardly knew one another when they began the odd practice of songwriting as correspondence. Wernquest had a background in blues guitar; Heringer in jazz vocal music and composition. The story of Hank and Pigeon tows the line between truth and fiction in so much as the truth is so perfect that it’s hardly believeable. When Bob Dylan first came to New York City he claimed to have been born from a Cherokee mother who abandoned him at birth with a traveling circus coming through New Mexico, so compared to that it’s believeable, but it nevertheless reads like the kind of urban fairytale that I’d expect to resurface as the plot of a quirky Swedish art film or animated short at Sundance. Heringer and Wernquest had played together in a band, but not the kind of band that sleeps in a touring van together–rather, the kind that hangs out every once in a while to record and play the occasional gig. They happened to be on the phone discussing one such gig when they met at opposite street corners in Manhattan. It would have been a simple matter to hang up and continue the conversation in person, but the two stood there in plain sight, talking. Add rain and replace Wernquest with John Cusack and you’ve got yourself a PG-13 romanic comedy. The incident, however cute in retrospect, went unnoticed by Wernquest until he showed up to an open-mic at the Sidewalk Cafe. Heringer took the stage, and as Wernquest sat listening he heard a line float by that went something like, “The things you say to me on the other side of the street.” Heringer had taken their conversation, or rather the situation surrounding it, and turned it into a song. But it wasn’t just a song. It was a song to him, a song for him, and an invitation of sorts. Wernquest did the only thing he could–he wrote a song back. And Heringer wrote a song back. And so they became Hank and Pigeon.

Hank and Pigeon is two voices, very much separate but interminably attune to one another. Each song is identifiably a Hank or Pigeon composition, usually according to the principle vocalist. There’s a consistency to their songs, even though each writes with a wholly different background and approach. Heringer’s songs are often modal, with chords expressive of her background in jazz. She writes on the ukulele, which as a relatively new instrument in her repertoire, affords her the opportunity to experiment with chords and harmonies that wouldn’t necessarily occur to her otherwise. Wernquest’s background in blues draws him towards more basic harmonic structures with an emphasis on the interaction between vocals and accompaniment. The variety of sentiments and moods that the two are capable of creating is extraordinary, and since each lends his or her finishing grace to the other’s compositions, the album reads like letters written by one and edited by the other such that both voices are always present but in varying roles. While sitting together during an open mic, the two began jotting down ideas and phrases, just little mental snippits. Unplanned, each went home and wrote a song based on their collective brain droppings that evening. Heringer wrote “Feathers and Fur,” the B-side of this digital 7-inch, and Wernquest wrote “When Will We Become,” the closing track on their phenomenal donation-optional album available on Bandcamp. One listen will tell you that theirs is a special kind of collaboration, different from the great songwriting pairs that come to mind, but somehow also better. Recurring themes run through their songs, most of them shared stories between Heringer and Wernquest that through the course of the album implant themselves upon listeners. As these little quirks reveal themselves to us, we get closer and closer to Hank and Pigeon, until we become a part of the discussion, watching their conversation unfold while taking part in it ourselves.

A-side “In the Ridge” introduces us to the pigeon character. Heringer and Wernquest sing, “I’m a pigeon and I’m living in the ridge between the walls.” It’s born of a true story, in which Wernquest consistently woke to strange sounds within the walls of his apartment, and imagined that such cacophany could only be caused by a pigeon flying around inside. From an academic perspective, this whole scenario situates Wernquest on the edge of a fictional Kafka-esque New York in which pigeons actually do nest in apartment walls. It’s a crazy alternate reality that I so desperately want to be true, and “In the Ridge” makes it so for a beautiful two and a half minutes. The song opens with a 5 (and a half) year old’s rendition of the song, which he renders as “whoopee cushion, whoopee cushion, tooshie tooshie, tooshie tooshie, whoopee cushion, whoopee cushion, whoopee cushion, whoopee cushion, whoopee cushion, whoopee cushion.” The lyrics pick up considerably in scope and depth after that, but I really like something about starting a song with a child’s voice. When most artists cull vocal samples they look for snippits that can be construed as sinister, like The Books sampling a deadbeat dad ignoring his child, or Neutral Milk Hotel sampling a kid putting down punk music, but here the sample reminds me that sound is sound. A beautiful song is essentially the same thing as a whoopie cushion, and it’s useful to be reminded of that. It’s also nice to hear it from a 5 year old and not John Cage. “In the Ridge” is a Wernquest composition, and alternates between two main chords for the entire song. Yet somehow, the vocals are layered over this sparse accompaniment to give the impression of fullness, completeness, and near-perfection. Wernquest’s restraint on the guitar is commendable, and his style of playing is just casual enough to be truly endearing. The recording itself is part of the magic, done live on a TEAC 1/4″ reel to reel in a single 12 hour marathon session that went well into the morning hours, during which Heringer and Wernquest recorded all 9 of the songs that appear on their album. Wernquest explained to me that this was the first time he’s ever made music with someone and had no idea what it was supposed to sound like. There was no formula for Hank and Pigeon, no musical template. In fact, they never really had any intentions of forming a proper band. It just happened, and the result is something so natural that it’s almost impossible to hear without feeling some deep and abiding attachment to the music. As a lyricist, Wernquest is among the best we’ve featured on Ampeater. His words read like a pastiche of modern literary greats, mixed with the surreal experience of living with 8.5 million other New Yorkers. Take a look:

Woke up this morning
Sky was falling
Walls were cracking
Tumbling down
Was startled by the sound

Crack in the window
Hit my pillow
While red rain was
Pourin down
My brain spilled on the ground

I heard a moon man
Brushing his hand
On the glass and
Plaster cracked
Was flat on my back

Now I’m a pigeon
And I’m living
In the ridge
Between the walls
Hoping the plaster falls.

In so much as the main figure in the song actually transforms into a pigeon, it’s hard not to recall The Metamorphoses, and the general expression of Kafka’s utterly disorienting and yet somehow comforting prose style. It’s magical realism at its finest, and it recalls the aforementioned liminal space (in this case, literally as well as figuratively, given that the pigeon is trapped inside the wall) between an objective reality and the one that exists in the songs of Hank and Pigeon.

B-side “Feathers and Fur” is a showcase for Heringer’s extraordinary voice. There’s something about it that immediately dispells any thoughts of “girl with a ukulele” syndrome, an oft lamented part of any open mic performance. Heringer is above all else highly trained, and her emphasis on precision separates her from the masses of songwriters that have also chosen this particular instrumental combination. I’m most struck by her control of each vocal phrase, as she ever so slightly tapers the closing note without sacrificing sound quality or pitch. If there’s any effort required to produce such a natural tone, it’s almost impossible to hear it in Heringer’s performance. The tune opens with a ukulele, cycling through a chord progression that’s so far off the beaten path it needs snowshoes. And yet, it benefits from the same simplicity that makes “In the Ridge” truly memorable. As a listener I’m swept along by the inconstant motion of the song, like an old music box playing some long lost waltz subject to oddly timed variations in tempo as its rusty cogs struggle to keep pace. It’s a song that belongs to the night–both written and recorded after midnight, and it has a patience and calmness that reminds me why it’s worth staying up until the day’s frantic movements have faded away. The relative quiet of the early morning hours really does work wonders.

It’s difficult to determine at times whether Pigeon is being used as a pseudonym for Wernquest or perhaps refers to an actual bird. The wonderfully playful line “Don’t break your clavicle crushing acorns in the park.” suggests the latter, while “Pigeon if you’ll be my muse then I will be the best friend a boy could ever hope to never see” (a terrific line, by the way) provides equally compelling evidence for the former. Moreover, Heringer directly references “In the Ridge” in the song’s last line: “And the walls are slowly caving in.” The pigeon is ultimately untouchable, a dream pigeon that exists only in the mythology of Hank and Pigeon, and any reference to it duly functions as a placeholder for Wernquest as a person. There aren’t many bands that have successfully developed such a complex set of allusions on their first album, and I doubt there are any bands that have done so without conscientiously setting out to do so. But Hank and Pigeon evolved as the natural outgrowth of two creative spirits interacting through their art. It’s not at all contrived; this is about as real as it gets. Even on my most jaded days, when the monotony of existing’s worn a hole in the fabric of my imagination, Hank and Pigeon somehow remind me that I can still daydream, that I can still imagine a world in which pigeons burst through walls, or in which every cell phone conversation takes place on opposite street corners. So put on Hank and Pigeon, and if it strikes you just right, head downstairs, out to the corner, and give someone a call. Maybe they’re closer than you think.

Ben Heller

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