On Sunday, Dec. 14, the public will have a chance to hear Pfeiffer‘s take on some of Captain Yonder‘s material, which he has incorporated into his own “American-gothic songs about madness, infatuation, solitude, country and nature,“ when he and his band perform a CD release party at the Loading Dock in Traverse City at 7 p.m. The Captain Yonder band includes Esmè Schwall on cello, Craig Johnson on percussion, and James Edlund on guitar/Wurlitzer.
Just where Captain Yonder leaves off and Ryan Pfeiffer begins on the CD, “Mad Country Love Songs“ is unclear, since the 10 songs on the album don‘t sound like they were written by anyone belonging to the “Greatest Generation“ this side of poet T.S. Elliot. The songs are exceptionally literary, to the point where two -- as well as the CD‘s title -- have been adapted from Sylvia Plath‘s poem, “Mad Girl‘s Love Song.“ In terms of song structure, the melodies seem to owe more to modern art bands such as Yo La Tempo or the German expressionism of the 1930s than what one might expect of a lone balladeer living in a trailer in the Ozarks. But, as Pfeiffer explains, the work is his interpretation of what Captain Yonder bequeathed him.
Nonetheless, Captain Yonder is an urban folklorist‘s dream in that he managed to hit some of the sweet spots resonating in modern folk music legend without leaving any tracks. It‘s claimed, for instance, that he rode the rails with his guitar in the Great Depression, and collaborated with Woody Guthrie on a number of songs. This is an obviously iconic experience, emblazoned on America‘s collective subconcious mind, and it seems odd that there were *two* rail-riding Woody Guthrie types who managed to hook up in the Depression (of note, Bob Dylan made a similar claim of being a rail-riding hobo minstrel early in his career until he was outed as a hoax in Time magazine). Pfeiffer also says his friend had three wives, but no children, nor apparently any step-children to pass on his legacy. And not a single photo of him exists, other than a distant shot of a man whose build and hair color look a tad robust for a man in his 90s. Pfeiffer also notes in his press kit that Captain Yonder “was an anomalous man“ who died a “timely“ death, Pynchonesque clues that hint at a possible leg-pulling.
Whether Captain Yonder is a spoof or not doesn‘t detract from Pfeiffer‘s work, however; in fact the legend adds to the ingenious aspect of his project, imbueing it with a rich sense of Americana. As Pfeiffer tells it, Captain Yonder left him “many strange, dark, beautiful and often enigmatic melodies and lyrics, which operate furtively in a traditional roots style.“ His work is one of completing the Captain‘s songs because the majority were “unfinished, unrecorded and untranscribed. It will be my reponsibility to stitch, mend and fill. And in cantinas, bars and barges along the way, I will continue to write and perform songs that you will recognize as my own.“
What does Pfeiffer‘s music sound like? Gothic folk in the sense of this CD runs to dissonant harmonies, strong close-to-the-bone images, and moody lyrics in the school of such cult musicians as Stereolab, Kronos Quartet, Ute Lemper, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Yo La Tempo and Portishead. Close to home, one might find a kissing cousin in the form of Keyboard and Plastic Duck, playing similarly quirky music, which swims against the tide of pop. Other reviewers have found Pfeiffer‘s music to be “lush and beautiful,“ “intriquing and difficult,“ “haunting and mesmerizing“ and blessed with a “far out, spooky cello and wild phrasings.“ Above all, Pfeiffer‘s songs are thoughtful with exquisite lyrics. Whether you believe that Captain Jack Yonder really did work on a Navy minesweeper in World War II, taught poetry at a small Midwestern fine arts college, and died an unrecognized genius in the hillbilly squalor of a trailer park, you can‘t deny that his protegè Ryan Pfeiffer is an exceptional artist and songwriter.
-- by Robert Downes
Mad Country Love Song II (Feeling Softly)
By Ryan Pfeiffer
In fecund wood I drifted upon a robin;
With precision I shot it from the tree,
Took seasoned spade and burrowed in the garden
And buried it there feeling softly.
In brambles I threw my body down;
Barefoot I walked on nettles firey,
Crushed thistles in the palm of my hand,
Lay naked on the grass feeling softly.
With torch I descended to the skiff;
By moon‘s rays I struck into the sea,
Where overboard I cast myself deftly
And surfaced, climbed aboard, feeling softly.
In common bed I turned my back to Rose
And told her I‘d love for her to grieve
How very much I had come to hate her;
Then I slept and awoke, feeling softly.
Dear Rose, perhaps you‘ve learned my name.
Good-bye Rose, may the future bear you brightly.
I have for you merely one request;
When you bury me please do it softly.