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My Red-Hearted Traffic-Busting Mac-and-Cheese Band

October 10, 2011

A particular music is needed to accompany me down Second, over to First, up the FDR Drive north, across the Willis Avenue Bridge, onto I-87 north, and, most crucially, past the dreadful I-95 interchange, which inevitably bottlenecks with thousands of vehicles leaving NYC to head west across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey or east toward Connecticut, a bottleneck made worse by the fact that construction currently has access to BOTH directions limited to ONE lane—yes, ONE lane for ALL traffic leaving NYC for New Jersey OR Connecticut—thus unjustly blocking those of us who want to hit up neither New Jersey nor Connecticut but simply need to drive north into Westchester County to teach a Monday afternoon class.

So yes, a particular music is needed to take me through this weekly push through vehicular sludge. Lately, that music has been Red Heart the Ticker’s new album, Your Name in Secret I Would Write. Robin MacArthur and Tyler Gibbons make up the RHTT duo, two of those achingly nice people you luck out to know. I know them because Robin and I went to writing school together at our beloved Vermont College of Fine Arts. Your Name is a tribute to Robin’s late grandmother, Margaret, who collected the songs from the Vermont hills and made sure they would not be forgotten. Your Name, therefore, is also a tribute to simple songs that need not be sung with anything but heart, a lot of experience, some sass, and whatever Robin and Ty find around the farmhouse.

Today, after I finally slid into the middle lane—just one more lane to go!—only to stop dead behind a semi blinking its hazards and wait fifteen minutes or so while ambulances and police cars rushed shoulder-side to deal with an accident that had clearly just happened, I found my comfort in track #6, “Carrion Crow,” which I repeated as many times as I needed to. An old crow sat upon an oak ... First I listened for wholeness. So intricate the instrumentation, even as I could envision the simple scene of Robin and Ty recording in Robin’s grandmother’s old farmhouse. Then I listened for the words. So sad this time through, as the mistake occurs, the grief sets in. But life, for the young, goes on. Then I listened for the tune, sliding up and down, including a simple note-by-note trip down an octave. Then I listened for each instrument, for the story each would tell. By the time I was full, had enough helpings, the semi was inching forward, the busted-up car was cleared, its driver was installed (sitting up, thank goodness) in the back of an ambulance, and I was on the move—the slow, slow move—northward. Toward Vermont, if I had nowhere else to go.

Red Heart’s New York debut was Saturday, and they filled The Living Room with what they referred to as “sad songs” but what the audience clearly thought of as time and permission to slow the heart and tap the foot. I noticed one woman, a beauty in a pixie cut, whose eyes were closed and mouth was upturned for most of the show. I got the feeling she’d had a rough, rough day and Red Heart’s balm was as soothing as the scotch.

Comfort music is a lot like comfort food. And Robin and Ty do comfort music. They start with the basics: uncomplicated lyrics that speak simple truths about love, loss, sacrifice, and the funny bone; a tune; an instrument or two; pure voices; and, most importantly, a reason to sing. They add a little a dash of this, maybe a long-held high G on the organ or a two-finger tap pattern on the banjo skin, and a dash of that, like an unexpected upper harmony from Ty that barely slides atop Robin’s already soft-breath singing. If you listen closely, you might hear a trio of notes played on an unidentified instrument (glockenspiel?) at just one moment in a song, just so, to punctuate, or highlight, or soften, or simply because the instrument needed to be part of the story right then. In the end, when the song is over, you think, mmm, that was good, like the perfect baked macaroni and cheese with its crispy edges browned right (or a breakfast burrito, or hot curry over rice, or any other craveable) and you might not know what ingredients went into making it, or what techniques were used, but you don’t really care because you know that it was good and you feel better.

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