One of the best singer songwriters actively working today is Joel P. West, the brain-force behind The Tree Ring. When I say “actively,” I mean it. The man released three albums under his own name from 2007 to 2011, then two albums by way of The Tree Ring in 2011 and 2012 and in his free time he scores films such as I Am Not A Hipster.
It’s no surprise that West has found a home in the realm of film because his music tends toward the hopeful, and all the best films float you from the theater on a current of hope manifesting as meditation, inspiration, or maybe merely a suspension of the everyday drudgery; this is the power of possibility. Images without sound are powerful but moving images set to music are affecting because music transforms mere images into life imagined in tandem to life as it is lived, and parallelism is enthralling since the two points (the real and the imagined) by definition can never meet. They are parallel. Thus, art is created from the force of the question, “But what if that’s not true? What if I can make what I want to see real?” This is the essence of hope, the great chameleon whose meaning changes with the scenery—that liquid gold that Barack Obama bottled and sold to us all on his way to the presidency, the thing that is a filmmaker’s Ace in hand and a musician’s magic potion.
But hope is not just a tactic, it is a fragile force that drives us to know the next day, the day after that and so forth until we’re able to see into future space, beyond the moments we need to conquer just to survive and onto the ones that will set the tone for years down the line. This is planning, a derivative of scheming also known as the fruit of schematics set down with intent—a transparent overlay of guidance points that keep us moving, not always forward but ever in motion. Therefore, hope is built upon motion that breeds results. Music and movies are the same. Hope offers a respite, a place to lose oneself in the possible. Music and movies do the same. Hope is most useful in steady doses, not the erratic peaks that plaque artificial stimulants. Likewise, music and movies emote best when a vision unfolds slowly with direction, wrought from craft and not happenstance. The difference between an album defined by one radio friendly hit that dominated one summer and Abbey Road, the difference between Shawshank Redemption and Happy Gilmore, is depth. True musicianship spawns a comprehensive, multilayered production that releases slowly and stays fresher longer. One hit wonders melt in your mouth quickly and are devoured, but everlasting albums—the ones that may have gotten short shrift at first in the shadow of a flashier wunderkind—provide the longevity so essential to fermentation. Because things taste better when they’ve aged—just like steak and wine and whiskey. And what is fermentation but the hope that the tasty thing you have in hand will be better if you watch and wait in an environment of your own design?
While fermentation may have fallen pray to instant gratification, Joel P. West is not interested in the fleeting or the superficial. As a counter-balance, West creates music that is full-bodied and optimistic. His ability to stand apart from a soundscape littered with superfluous noise lies in his ability to craft albums. Not just songs, but albums that beg to be listened to from first to last. In accomplishing this, he is able to restore a totality to music listening that has been fragmented by an iTunes-loving world that has divorced songs from the aura of the album. Perhaps this ability is an extension of his composition work in film. Songs beget songs on his 2012 opus Brushbloom, just as scenes beget scenes in film, on a journey to that final climax that justifies your emotional investment. He not only creates music, he masters atmosphere. The cover art features desert shrubbery West recalled from a camping trip or something and hunted down, at dawn, so he could photograph it in the perfect light for the perfect metaphoric ambience, for Christ’s sake. This is what a painstaking attention to detail motivated by an incredibly thorough vision will produce. To further explore the totality of Brushbloom, let’s look at the song “Shoulder Season,” shall we?
It begins with a softly plodding beat that could be the soundtrack for a nature flick about the growing cycles of daisies (in a good way). That beat is joined by a crisp yet warm guitar, and then it breaks: “Even these trees are huddled tightly in the sharpness of the morning.” But their apples are rotten, their arms sun-starved, and the sounds from his mouth so loud. Here we are, the stage is set: it’s morning and our hero has a tale to tell. West describes a stubborn gracious, earth; he breathes deep. This is when he finds his Whitmanic yawp and the tempo quickens into a refrain that speaks of cold air and is driven by shakers that give way to that same soft beat which opened the track. Then, without warning, we have our new spring with soft new things on its way. Here is our direction and we are no longer alone, surrounded instead by the vivid ghosts of swelling instrumentals—present yet spectral. With our balance underfoot, the story has reached its zenith and the music has summited. Here, West admits, times are harder but we’ve taken flight so, worry not: if we are sustained then we alive, left with an endowment of hope.
If good music gives gravity to images and great music conjures images from the blank canvas of your brain, then lasting music, music like that which is made by Joel P. West, draws meaning into quiet moments with invigorating bliss, compelling you into different territory, onto new tangents. Brushbloom gives context by placing the listener in an atmosphere of simple imagery and understanding, thereby outlining the possible. In this respect West’s music is cinematic in scope and breadth using lyrics which mimic the music in an expertly choreographed dance that can be experienced again, and again, and again without fatigue. Whether for hire, for film or for his own musical persuasions, Joel P. West is a poet with a purpose and a vision too enthralling to bypass.