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Courier of Joy

Photo by Susanna Howe

The reason you’re reading this is that, in a dive bar in downtown Los Angeles two years ago, Becky Stark hit two very pure, crisp, clear tones. That’s all it takes. Hearing them again (or something like them) on her recent self-released CD, Artifacts of the Winged, it’s like touching seaside air that’s wet enough to be water but dry enough to be fog — you never forget how it first felt and how difficult it was to hold on to.

From Providence, Rhode Island, and currently a magician’s assistant, Stark clasps inspiration from the experimental spasms of Black Dice and John Wiese in one hand, and the songwriting of Juice Newton and Karen Carpenter in the other. Her affection for 1970s songwriting and production emerges in "Wild," the B-side on her "When Are You Coming Home?" 7-inch. Sung with solo acoustic guitar, it unveils a girl who feels very sassy, yet her confession session isn’t peppered with the leaps and bounds of cartoonish emotions. When she sings, "As mad could be/I’m feelin’ wild/I’m feelin’ free," in a flawless voice without burrs, burps or strains, you hear a spectrum of human experience. Stark’s is a lilting kind of folk-country music, slow but vivacious in its methodical voyage through a foreign land. It feels like watching a movie from a bygone era, when children didn’t know how to roll their eyes.

Most react to such talk with either polite revulsion or a cynical pause before unveiling choice snide remarks. Well, it would come as no surprise to learn that the Buddha Gautama got heckled in his day. Yet the quest for the "real" — a sincere expression of emotion that touches lives — is at the heart of many current cultural manifestations: sampling, hip-hop, virtuosity in classical music. Strange that the realest things, a slender girl’s perfect voice and six strings, constitute an anomaly, subject to the subtle green envy of a jaded eye. It’s all been done before. How boring. This glass is half empty. Who drank my water?

One recent drizzling afternoon at her pastoral aerie, when asked what it is that she stands for, Stark replies, "I’m working on producing a sound that when you hear it, it makes you feel better. A sound that transmits joy — a sound that makes you listen and makes you sing. It’s funny: Sometimes when I play, I am basically just singing with no guitar because I play so softly. It makes me feel like I am ‘playing music’; it creates the illusion. I only have one guitar. My mom gave it to me! It’s a dime-store guitar made in Japan in the 1970s — a YWCA guitar that was in my mom’s attic when she moved into the house."

Gathering the heady steam of childlike confidence, she continues breathlessly: "I encourage singing out loud. It is a great source of pleasure. I think it is absurd for a person to consider themselves or anyone else a bad singer. That is like calling someone a ‘bad breather.’ We don’t commonly think of sound as matter, but it is — and I think that it is our understanding of ourselves as finite that is coming to an end when we talk of apocalypse. The apocalypse is the end of limited consciousness. That is what we are experiencing right now. So do not be afraid of your own infinite nature."

Not one to change horses in midapocalypse, Stark makes music about the basics of life, delivered in a beautiful way. It’s about simplicity and truly seeing what’s hidden in plain sight: A bed is a drum, and the death-metaler is merely the Cookie Monster held upside down.

Becky Stark is one piece of a double-sided, all-white circular puzzle that represents the outsider as artist. This is not postmodernism. This is not irony. This is fringe-rocking, and she’s a shawl.

Becky Stark and Lavender Diamond — Jeff Rosenberg from Young People on guitar, Steve Gregoropoulos from WACO on keyboard, illustrator and ex–Swirlies muse Ron Regé Jr. on drums — play Tangier on Tuesday, January 18.

Stark Naked Artifacts of the Winged

"These are mostly love songs," the liner notes declare. For some, love — Love — is a force of nature like the ocean, or the sum total of one’s emotional life expressed in an instant. Calmness is a kind of love, too; so is truth-telling, hurtful or otherwise. Orange sleeve bound neatly with string, Artifacts of the Winged is offered to the world just as a child gives a gift to its mother — one of the cleanest, clearest expressions of Love to come along for many moons.

Sans the usual quartet led by Lavender Diamond mother figure Becky Stark, this album is simply Stark on acoustic guitar, singing out softly in a voice that hovers over the strings on a dozen faintly countrified folk tunes. It’s arranged like a hobo hopping trains at random; the songs could easily have been done in one take straight through. Their timelessness hints at effervescent ever-presence, and through selections like "There’s a Place Where There’s No Sorrow" and "Emptiness Is a Conductor," the level of comfort and warmth is unparalleled. The music is reminiscent, via the acoustic warmth of that crystalline voice, of the promise that everything will be all right — an unassailable vow one hears when one is younger, a gentle reminder of loving and certain times, which remains constant in the background despite the interruption of adulthood and continues even just before death in bed. Heaven could be 15 feet above your head, but unless you know where to look, there is only the emptiness of clouds and sky.

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