Feature Article by Ben Krieger
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I didn't get up until 10am and heard the news when I was confronted with the stalled 1 train at 137th Street. I went back in, told the restaurant I would obviously be late, and sat down in front of the television. I had been to the top of the World Trade Center twice: once with my dad when I was 11, and with my ex-fiancÚ (me in a nice shirt, her in a silver dress, both of us fresh off 6 months worth of swing classes, we had ridden the elevators up on a Saturday evening and gone dancing). In the months following that Tuesday I remember wandering off alone one evening in October to watch the sun rise from the Brooklyn Bridge and staring into the void where there should have been windows glowing. I remember tending bar in a dark corner of Inwood where it seemed as if everyone had lost someone and was planning to drink themselves into amnesia.
I played a lot of music during the months following 9/11, but there is no single record that got me through that fall, no particular collection of songs that completely connected the dots that were scampering around. With Slow Learner's In Their Time They Are Magnificent I have found a lost soundtrack to a very intense season in my life.
The music leaves a lasting impression, visual imagery blends with the sounds emanating from the speakers. I paint my own pictures: pianos dance with paper bags, guitars slip out of the smoke pillars...strangers gather on eastern shores to stare helplessly across rivers...first time ministers deliver hymns of mourning in makeshift churches...the drum of a thousand running feet...a commuter who stares from his watch to the empty subway tunnel and back with no idea of how magical he is... friends singing a drunken chorus in the corner of a Manhattan bar...a shifting bundle of balloons suddenly released into the sky in a dozen colors, flying father apart and away with every passing second...the soft drop of tinkering glass...the sounding off of a solemn brass band. This is a record about the loss of life, about the celebration of perseverance and personal magic.
"I don't love everything I've done, but I feel that this record is it," says mastermind Michael Napolitano, "It's real and it's good and...I don't know how it happened." Like many artists, the multi-instrumentalist can tell you how it happened in a literal sense: It began with the drummer locking himself in his house for a year on a forced mission towards proficiency on piano, guitar, and several other instruments. Then there were a lot of sleepless trips to record in Albany, a concerted effort to keep the sound organic and loose, playing behind the beat, guitar riffs composed in real time. But like many great records, In Their Time They Are Magnificent is greater than the sum of its parts, and the spiritual energy that pushed it past that point is something that often leaves an artist amazed at his/her own work.
Neil Young comes up several times in our conversation. Sonically, Slow Learner's material is reminiscent of his more volatile 70s records (On the Beach, Tonight's the Night). Politically, however, Magnificent sits on an opposite pole from Living with War in terms of how it approaches its subjects. "[Songwriters] don't want to be kitschy," says Napolitano about topical writing. We're talking about his subtle approach to describing the post-9/11 outlook in the songs. We agree that it took a long time for the NYC music scene to start expressing the aftermath of those harrowing events in their art (some never did) and Napolitano brings up a point that Neil Young's cheerleaders seem to have missed: if you are a struggling musician trying to establish yourself, singing directly and without irony about politics is risky. Singing about true pain is even riskier. Songs about love and loss are often safer to perform. Many audience members will react with emotion knowing that they may never have to live through their personal heartbreak again. What happened to our city in 2001, however, was very painful, very real, and will most likely occur again. To present an audience in denial with a dangerous pain is to sacrifice easier commercial success.
| "With the wood you
made a cross behind
the stake between your
To leave us all
reminded that we are
And more that you drink
and more in your nose
And you too can lead
the world in your
daddy's new clothes
You are wicked and we
Napolitano suggests that being elusive is simply a way of keeping the listener from getting too uncomfortable. Running over the lyrics to his songs, it seems as if his intention is to make listeners feel comfortable. Many of us never "moved on"; we buried and avoided. If Neil Young has chosen to aggressively raise Americans from complacency, Magnificent takes on the approach of a healer: we are more beautiful than we realize, we don't have to poison ourselves, we can admit that we are living in a false sense of security, we don't have to limit our conversations to discussions on the brilliance of the White Stripes, we don't need to medicate the darker sides of our psyche...and if we have spent the past 5 years trying to escape back into a metrosexual world of hedonism and distraction, it's not too late to turn things around. Napolitano presents it all quite tenderly. He wants you to really think about it on your own time, late at night, walking the rain.
All this aside, the boys in Slow Learner know how to enjoy themselves. As we roll on through the evening I'm treated to all sorts of stories about the recording process, the memories of old friends, and how playing with long-time associate Ed Gorch is "as intense as making love to a woman [insert laugher from the band]." In the live setting, Kieran Mulvaney, Jordon Young and Gorch rally around their leader with great enthusiasm for his songs and spirit. The sound on Magnificent may originate from the mind of one man, but not a man in isolation.
Michael Napolitano is a Jersey boy; once again, while the bars in Brooklyn are alive with the sounds of love, liquor and irony, a rare record that addresses the post 9/11 world directly seems to have come from that land across the river (the songwriter joins his neighbors the Boss and Tris McCall, among others). While he was raised on the CSNY and Billy Joel records of his father (also a drummer), Napolitano only recently discovered Springsteen's work. Now he is in love, and the conceptual sprawl suits him well. "I'm going to make epic records," says Napolitano, "This one just opened the door." What an entrance.