He calls his songs “control songs,” though they generally tell us how little control we have over our lives. His new CD is called Togetherness, though its lyrics suggest that he doesn’t believe such a state exists. David Garland’s persona is a core of unrelievable pain hidden beneath a layer of naive optimism covered by a veneer of bemused cynicism. He acts so simple, but the clues about that inner complexity fall thick and fast. And finally in the last few months he’s back concertizing again after a hiatus of several years, during which we’ve only heard him as that DJ on WNYC who loves science fiction music, space-age bachelor pad music, and anything else peculiar. The return is long overdue.
Take “This Is Love,” one of his best songs. It’s an ode to dating, set to a tune of nursery rhyme simplicity: “What’s your name? What’s your number?/Is it Sue? Is it five?” But he’s not as accommodating as he pretends: “You just looked at your wristwatch/Never mind, I’ve got time.” Finally he mentions casually, despite the ominously biblical language, “They will smite you down/But then I will come by and I’ll pick you up.” From his chipper tone you don’t know whether he’s picking you up to comfort you, or just to take you on a date likely to be a further ordeal. He’s caring and considerate, he’s selfish and self- absorbed. In short, he’s just like all of us. Well, I shouldn’t speak for you.
But this Everyman knows that love is far from the only thing we’re motivated by. In “Play Within a Play,” an actor and actress begin a conventional dialogue of troubled passion over a seething tango, then switch direction in mid-gush:
He: My family wants, my job wants, and you.
She: I want to be best at whatever I do.
He: My personal past forms my point of view.
Then they look at each other: This is no love scene! The pulse in our wrists has much more to say.
Much more to say, indeed—Garland’s genius is for filling in with music what the lyrics leave unsaid. Who else would underlay the following poignant story of faded love: He wears his wristwatch. She wears her jacket. Under the blanket. They’re never naked. They’ve almost forgotten how. With chords luminous in their sense of mystery and potential discovery? Or with singing over and over again the phrase, “Hey, watch my pony—he’s falling down,” to an accordion-and-toy-piano refrain not a bit sad or ironic or cutesy, just calm and comforting. Of course his pony is falling down. How could it be otherwise?
That’s why Garland has done for the pop song what Robert Ashley has done for opera. The lyrics are often too oblique to make sense—”Seeing my surface I witness the contours/each imperfection is structured just right”—but they distract your attention, feeding you partial truths, while the music circles back behind your unconscious and zaps you with the Real Truth, the ineffable inevitabilities of being human. It can do that because Garland has a superb melodic sensibility. Listen to “Happy Ending”—it’s a silly enough rock song on first hearing, but the way the harmony pirouettes around the tonic key, slipping back in at the right moment, reveals a sophistication that he’s scrupulous about never showing off.
His voice itself is the same way: so warm, untrained-seeming, and conversational you don’t notice its exquisite control. Just the guy next door singing to you about his job until he leaps gracefully into a high register or idly wanders down to a low B-flat below the bass clef. The CD (on Ergodic) sports quite a cast of electro-gizmos and Downtowners (Guy Klucevsek, John Zorn, Bobby Previte, and others among the latter), but for this lite gig at Tonic he stripped down his arrangments for trio. Will Holshouser did an expert job on accordion, and Brian Dewan (also a superb songwriter, Garland tells me) brought a sturdy virtuosity to an electric zither, an instrument I wasn’t prepared to be nearly so impressed by.
Garland’s trio was followed by Billy Martin, who opened with an athletic and impressively punchy solo piece for two thumb pianos. Martin then brought out the Komodo Whirligig Orchestra, actually five people each playing a gourd or wood block with a mallet. For half an hour those mallets tapped out Martin’s Stridulation for the Good Luck Feast in 13 movements, each movement marked by subtly different rhythmic strategies. Not very high in entertainment value, but within his breathtakingly austere limits Martin showed considerable rhythmic ingenuity, and, to my pleasant surprise, the full-house audience in this rock bar listened as quietly as rabbits. Yet another young American composer stripping music down to start over from zero: watch out.