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Frederick Squire - Sings Shenandoah and Other Popular Hits

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Artist: Frederick Squire

Album: Sings Shenandoah and Other Popular Hits

Label: Blue Fog

Review date: Nov. 22, 2011

Along with folk music comes a deluge of historical and pop cultural associations, from the music of protest to the soundtracks to thousands of middling indie films. Due to the richness of the genre, an album of folk will have all these historical and cultural ideas swirling together just under the surface making it difficult to craft an emotionally effective album where the listener can just focus on the music, the internal ideas and the emotions without all these other associations crowding into the mental space. Frederick Squire is an amazing songwriter though, and the songs on Sings Shenandoah and Other Popular Hits are beautiful and emotionally full, and by writing such compelling songs, many of these other notions fade into the background.

Squire is a Canadian musician who’s worked with Julie Doiron and Phil Elverum, and reminds me in certain ways, through his voice and the gentleness of his music, of Hayden, though really that’s more of a touchstone than a comparison. Jennifer Kelly does an amazing job of describing him full in her review of his first album March 12, so I’ll dispense with that and rather talk about something that I find genuinely novel in his music.

There’s something in Shenandoah, in a couple of his songs specifically and in the entire album implicitly, that’s truly interesting. Squire begins the album with two songs that set the scene and that place the listener into an earlier time. Folk music, of course, has many purposes. As it’s still practiced in many places as a vital form of expression, it’s used to preserve the history of a group of people. In some cases, by placing the listener in the past, there might be a conservative agenda, a way of showing the listener how much better the past might be.

Squire, however, rather than having a conservative mission in mind, creates a past for the listener in a progressive way, almost with a tinge of modern psychology. The past isn’t ideal because it was a politically simpler time or a fabled golden era, but rather our connection to ourselves and our emotions and the emotions of others was more pronounced and easier to access. What is to be gained from understanding the past is a reconnection with this way of being in the world.

A particular theme that comes up in a few of the songs is the idea of forgiveness. “Keep a place inside your heart that’s called forgiveness / for the people who no one else will forgive” from “The Human Race Can Be a Very Nasty Animal” and “Each mistake you make when you are young will be forgiven” from “All Things Past Serve To Guide You On Your Way.” There are two thoughts about forgiveness here: forgiving others and forgiving yourself. Neither concept shows up in a lot of non-religious music or is dealt with much in our political culture.

Many of the modern political and cultural narratives have to do with blame and responsibility. Who is responsible for making society like this? Whose fault is it? Not that, say, the bankers should be allowed to get away with their massive crimes, but there are very few people openly advocating simply for forgiveness and for creating a culture of forgiveness. Maybe that’s what’s necessary to truly advance, and perhaps that’s why these two songs jumped out and perhaps that’s why they make the album so emotionally compelling. The prevalence of blame in our society even seeps into our own psyches, and we become hard on ourselves, unable to forgive even the slightest faux pas.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger talks in Being and Time about how humans only understand death in fits and starts. We remember it, and live our lives with purpose and meaning for a while, and then get distracted and forget about it, going back to playing video games or watching Big Bang Theory. Every once and a while, we come upon something that reminds us of death, and we return to living with meaning and purpose. There’s a lot of art, too, that reminds us of things we’ve forgotten, and Shenandoah is one of those albums, reminding us of a way to live our lives and to be in the world that is emotionally healthier and more full.

By Andrew Beckerman

Other Reviews of Frederick Squire

March 12

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