Rebuilding a mystery.

Another period of blog neglect. Another lonely tear shed by a forgotten Tonka truck resting at the bottom of a toy chest.

At least I have a good excuse this time: I’ve been busy recording music. While my own album has remained the focus, there’s been the odd pleasant detour. On Thursday Ron’s friend Alison swung by to add some violin to one of his songs.

I like how this video still makes it look like a very inept special effects department took a shot at making Ron look like Evil Microphone Hybrid Man and failed with flying colours.

Before we got together, Ron asked if I had any ideas for songs we might have Alison play on. I picked the song that felt like the last one you’d expect violin to show up in, because these are the things I do.

I’m not sure Alison even heard the song before she played on it, but she gave us some great stuff. The last two takes in particular are full of perfect little countermelodies that add something special to the fabric of the song. Choosing a take or coming up with a composite that grabs the best moments from both is going to be a little tricky. But when you’re working with good material to begin with, you really can’t go wrong.

A few nights before all this, I was watching a bunch of “Steamed Hams” remix videos on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with them, these involve a memorable scene from “22 Short Films About Springfield” — an episode of The Simpsons from a time when the show was still operating at the height of its powers — being warped and/or re-contextualized in a number of ways. Some of the things people have come up with are pretty great.

A few of my favourite variations on the theme:

At some point, this popped up on the sidebar:

…which led me to this:

And that was it for me and “Steamed Hams”.

I don’t know how many times I watched those last two videos that night, but it was a lot. I also don’t know how you make Tom and Jerry and The Pink Panther seem like the saddest cartoons in the world. Whoever edited these videos found some untapped melancholy I never knew was there, and they bit down on it hard until they drew blood. As much as I appreciated that element of it, it was the voice I kept coming back to. It was as beautiful as it was unusual.

That voice belongs to someone known only as Shiloh Dynasty. No one knows anything for sure about Shiloh’s gender, location, or age — or if they do, they’re not talking. Even the most cursory biographical details are impossible to come by. The only person to go on record saying they’ve had any contact with Shiloh used the pronoun “she”, so that’s what I’ll stick with until I’m told otherwise.

As far as I can work out, Shiloh posted a slew of videos on Vine and Instagram in 2014 and 2015, doing little to call attention to herself. Most of these were live acoustic guitar/vocal performances. A few were apparent vocal ad-libs over instrumental beats found on the internet. You can find a video on YouTube that features every known surviving Shiloh song fragment stitched together. It makes for hypnotic listening, and inspires more than a few thoughts of, “How on earth do you come up with vocal melodies like this?”

“Fragment” is the key word here. There are no full songs. Most performances are somewhere between six and twenty seconds long. It almost feels like this was done intentionally — to encourage producers to loop and cut up these mini-songs and stretch them out (something a whole host of people did, sharing the results on SoundCloud). It’s possible she was just getting down ideas using the camera in her phone. Whatever the case, there’s more heart, soul, and melodic invention in many of these gesture drawings than there are in most people’s full-length songs.

As Shiloh’s following grew, it seems she was uncomfortable with the rising interest in her music and chose to step back. People were left to speculate. Some minds drifted to dark places, starting rumours that she’d committed suicide.

Last summer, rapper XXXTentation released his debut album, 17. Three of its songs featured Shiloh, albeit in sampled form. Potsu, who produced those songs, had to get in touch with Shiloh at some point to clear those samples. According to people who claim to have spoken to Potsu, he’s said she’s alive and well. She just isn’t interested in having any kind of spotlight shining in her direction.

How someone could manage to remain an absolute mystery in spite of being a featured performer on an album that hit #2 on the Billboard charts and got a ton of publicity…it’s not easy to wrap your head around. But that’s Shiloh: a friendly ghost in the age of information overload. It’s kind of refreshing to know such a thing can still exist.

Try as I might, I can’t listen to her as a hook placed between someone else’s rapped verses. It feels like a perversion. An intrusion. Her voice needs to stand alone. Like this.

What Potsu did here, for the most part, was just make a beat to play off of Shiloh’s song fragment and then punch up the sound of her original lo-fi phone recording with some well-chosen reverb, compression, and EQ. It’s all about supporting what’s already there. As it should be. Sometimes less really is more.

As usual, I’m late to the party here. I didn’t find out about Shiloh until long after she retreated into the shadows. But listening to her and discovering just how little there was to be discovered about her got me thinking about the odd, two-faced relationship I have with mystery as a general thing.

Unsolved crimes and unexplained disappearances have always intrigued me, as morbid as that might sound. There’s often the feeling that if you could uncover just one crucial piece of information, the whole thing would snap into place and everything would be explained, but nothing ever quite adds up. For every rare case like Lori Ruff — whose real identity was finally revealed without offering much in the way of closure — there are insoluble enigmas like the bizarre case of Tamam Shud and the disappearances of Jean Spangler, Louis Le Prince, Ray Gricar, the Sodder children, and the entire crew of the MV Joyita.

I love reading about this stuff and playing armchair detective. At the same time, there’s a part of me that would almost be disappointed if some of these strange cases were ever solved. When the answer to an unanswerable question feels too mundane to do it justice, you can find yourself thinking it was all a lot more compelling when you didn’t know what to think.

This applies to music as well. I enjoy learning about the artists whose work speaks to me, but I’ve always had an attraction to those who are more obscure. The ones who seem somewhat unknowable. Here again the urge to know everything fights against the excitement of not knowing.

Syd Barrett is a good example.

I remember being twelve or thirteen years old, reading all the available information about Syd, and thinking he was the most interesting person I’d ever heard of. Here was a guy who, even as he was losing his grip on reality and was about to be kicked out of the band he was responsible for creating, still had enough of his wits about him to play a brilliant little practical joke on the rest of Pink Floyd.

One day he brought in a new song to show the band. It was called “Have You Got It Yet?” Syd tried teaching it to Roger Waters, but Roger was having a hell of a time trying to work it out.

After a few run-throughs he figured out what the problem was. Every time he played the song, Syd would change it just enough to make whatever memory remained of the previous version useless. He did it over and over again, always altering the music in some subtle but fundamental way. The one part that stayed the same each time was a call-and-response chorus that had Syd singing, “Have you got it yet?” and the rest of the band shouting, “No, no, no!”

No one else was ever going to be able to get it. Syd made sure of that.

I devoured stories like this one, along with details about unreleased songs like “Vegetable Man” and “Scream Thy Last Scream” — songs I thought would be forever inaccessible to me. Then I got a little older, the internet grew some serious legs, and I got to hear those songs. As much as I enjoyed them, on some level I missed having to imagine for myself what they sounded like, creating half-formed songs for my brain to sing to itself in the absence of the real thing.

Maybe more than a “losing the mystery” thing it was a “losing some of the wide-eyed wonder of youth” thing, and Syd got mixed up in it. I’m not sure. But today you can even hear the mythical unreleased solo session Syd cut in 1974 without having to look very hard. It isn’t the “abortion” some witnesses described it as at the time. It sounds like Syd was having a bit of aimless fun jamming on a few rough guitar ideas, overdubbing his own bass tracks and the odd additional guitar part.

It’s nice to be able to hear it, if only to refute the claims of those who’d have you believe Syd was an acid-fried vegetable incapable of stringing anything coherent together on the guitar by the mid-1970s. There are moments that make you wonder what he might have been able to do if he kept showing up at the studio often enough to refine the sketches and record some vocal tracks. It wasn’t to be. After wandering for a while, the music retreats into itself before fading away, much like Syd was about to do himself.

The last time I got wrapped up in a good musical mystery was when an album called L’Amour hit the streets in 2014. It wasn’t a new album. It had been recorded all the way back in 1983, written and performed by a man named Randall Wulff who called himself Lewis.

Jack Fleischer’s liner notes for the Light in the Attic reissue are a compelling read. He was able to untangle some of Lewis’s story, but every bit of information he managed to unearth only raised more questions. What kind of person worked as a stockbroker in Calgary in the ’80s, lived in an apartment with all-white furniture, left town after writing a bad cheque to a photographer, and made music that sounded like…this? And why would he then go to such great lengths to fall off the face of the earth?

When L’Amour first gained a wider audience after existing for decades as an obscure self-funded private press LP, some listeners made comparisons to Arthur Russell. I can sort of hear it, maybe, a little, but I think there’s a fundamental difference between the two artists. Arthur sang softly to pull you closer. Lewis sounds more like he’s trying to keep his heart hidden at the same time he’s holding it out for you to see. Most of his lyrics are impossible to decipher. The harder you squint to try and see him, the less sure you are that he’s there at all.

L’Amour is an album out of time. It doesn’t sound much like anything else that was recorded in the 1980s, or in any other decade. You’ve got Lewis playing piano and acoustic guitar and mumbling his lyrics in his strange whisper-croon, and then you’ve got someone named Philip Lees (a mystery himself, and maybe a pseudonym invented to make it look like more than a one-man operation) playing a synthesizer that sounds like it has a malfunctioning pitch wheel. It’s as if one of the background characters in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street stumbled into a recording studio after a little too much cocaine and the microphones captured his dark night of the soul.

“Cool Night in Paris” was the first song I heard. I was transfixed. The bluesy acoustic guitar, the soft, warped synth sound, and that quivering voice created a sound that was a little unsettling, and impossible to forget.

Now that his album wasn’t just haunting the odd thrift shop anymore, people wanted to know more about this dude who made a point of dedicating one of his songs to model Christie Brinkley for no apparent reason. A second Lewis album — Romantic Times — was discovered and reissued in short order. If it didn’t have quite the same gravity as L’Amour, it had some gorgeous songs and richer soundscapes to recommend it. It wasn’t a simple retread. This time there was wailing saxophone! And a drum machine! And analog synths straight out of the Vangelis Blade Runner playbook.

For a while, the best source of Lewis-related intel was an epic thread on the hipinion message board. I tried to join so I could be a part of the fun, but it turns out you can’t just register and get an account there the way you can at any normal message board. You have to try and get the attention of an existing member who has some amount of clout, assuming you can find a way to contact them outside of the site. After that, maybe they’ll put in a good word for you and you’ll be allowed into the club, if you’re lucky. If not, your account will be “pending approval” forever.

That’s some pretty goofy shit right there. And if you know me, you probably know how I feel about “clubs” and “scene cred” and all that stuff. So you’ll be stunned to learn my account was never approved and is lying dormant somewhere inside the vast anus of cyberspace.

Still, there was some good discussion over there. A few posters even dug up some interesting nuggets. They were able to verify that Lewis used Randy Duke as another alias, recording some music in the late 1980s and early 1990s that got a belated release during the height of Lewismania. Most of it is pretty horrible, with some ham-fisted overdubs that do nothing to serve the music. The alien quality that gave the first two albums much of their power is gone. But that voice is still there, if a little older, harsher, and less concerned with melody.

Light in the Attic, acting on a tip they received from someone who knew Lewis, managed to track him down at one of his favourite coffee chops. He refused to reveal anything of substance about his past, turned down a royalty cheque, and seemed amused and a little surprised by the mystique his music had generated thirty years after it was made. He said he was still making music but had no desire to make any money off of it and no interest in discussing his earlier work.

Of course, he was wearing all white.

As a lover of mystery, you couldn’t hope for a much better ending to the Lewis story. Though there’s some amount of resolution, things are still left open-ended. And yet I can’t help wishing they never found the guy at all. Somehow it would be a better story if he remained an unseen subject of conjecture.

Shiloh knows where it’s at. When you have nothing else to go on, you’re forced to generate everything you think you know about an artist from their art alone. And maybe, sometimes, that’s enough.

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