I get mail. Lots of it. Mind you, I'm certainly not complaining; contact and communication is what it's all about, and what writer doesn't seek a "test for echo," some sort of validation for what we do with our time by way of feedback from a reader? Otherwise, why write at all?
More often than not, my mail takes the form of a demand, as in "Write about my band/event/CD, or else." That's part of the gig. But I live for those moments when a reader will reach out, either by commenting on something he or she has just seen in the paper, or recalling a particularly joyous show we both happened to attend, or just to say, "Hey, what do you think of this idea?" This, for me, is one of the job's greatest rewards. We want to feel part of a community, after all; otherwise, we'd likely never come out of the house.
Last week, I came across something that hit me hard. It took the form of a news release marking the emergence of two new independent labels in Buffalo and an attendant CD release party, which in itself wouldn't necessarily be big news. But when reading this particular one, I was immediately struck by the mission statement that served to delineate an overarching ethos. It read, in part, "the disc's name reflects both WNY's collective hope of recapturing the brilliance of Buffalo's proud past and the artists' return to, and alteration of, traditional songwriting structures."
This sounded like what I've been babbling about for years.
The labels -- Exhibition Records and Corporate Screws -- have compiled some of their favorite works from young Buffalo songwriters and packaged them together as "Restoring the Structure Vol. 1: A Buffalo Song Compilation." At 7 p.m. Saturday, they'll celebrate the disc's release in Mohawk Place, 47 E. Mohawk St.
I contacted Exhibition Records head Peter Burakowski and rather excitedly picked his brain concerning the way his news release had suggested a need for a return to structure in songwriting.
"Many people say this, but I believe that most enduring songs are the ones that, when stripped down to the solo voice and guitar or piano, still seem full and complete," Burakowski replied. "There is timelessness in that format, since the songwriter is reduced to the same basic tools that have been available for hundreds of years. Thus, you'll hear a blending of blues, country, bluegrass and folk influences on 'Restoring the Structure.' "
I wondered if there was a feeling on the part of Burakowski and the people he's working with that popular music has, generally speaking, moved away from the more traditional, craft-oriented approach to songwriting -- and that perhaps something has been lost in that process.
"On a macro level, sure," he answered. "When you have folks like (writing/production hitmaking team) the Matrix writing one out of every three songs on the radio, you realize that mainstream songwriting has gone from a craft art to a mass-production system. Something that gets lost in this process is the intimacy of the songs -- tunes are often written to be vague and unspecific in order to appeal to everyone in a momentary, somewhat superficial way."
There seemed to be some implied connection in the language used in the Exhibition/Corporate Screws press materials between an economic/spiritual decline in our area and the loss of what he suggested were worthwhile values in the long tradition of songwriting.
"Absolutely. We recognized a frustrating parallel between the steady decline of Buffalo and the evolution of art into a more standardized commodity. We need to invest in the long-term restructuring of Western New York, which means investigating the roots of our past success, being simultaneously patient and calculatingly ambitious and looking beyond convenient, quick-fix solutions.
"But we believe that a similar bottom-up process is necessary for revitalizing the music industry. Luckily, there are many people who feel the same way. On a national/international level, you have guys like Jeff Tweedy (of Wilco), Damien Rice, Iron & Wine and the Kings of Convenience, who seem to take a similar approach to creating music.
"Here in Buffalo, there is a tremendous scene of songwriters that have been rallying around the Harvest Sum label -- the Old Sweethearts, for example."
Perusing the list of singer/songwriters Burakowski and his team have assembled for the Mohawk gig -- including Jax DeLuca, Rachel Heckl, Colin Hogan, Mark Longolucco, Dan Reitz, the band Vox Humana, Brian Wheat and the duo Woebegone -- it's immediately apparent that they have concentrated on a younger generation of songwriters. I wondered what Burakowski believes these younger writers are bringing to the table that has perhaps been missing.
"There are many fantastic songwriters that have been playing around this area for decades who we love, but the younger songwriters that we chose for this compilation share a unique skill -- the ability to pay homage to the rich history of songwriting, while finding opportunities to incorporate distinctly modern themes, styles and technology. It's absolutely refreshing to see young songwriters discover and develop synergy between a world of music that is solely theirs and one that has been shared for centuries."
Why "Restoring the Structure" as the disc's title?
"We see great symbolism in the abandoned buildings of Buffalo's past -- we can allow them to crumble to pieces, knock them down and pave them over, or invest in bringing them back to life. We choose to restore the ideals, ethics, creativity and vision that have been the underlying structure for past eras of brilliance for Buffalo and songwriting."