One benefit of digitalizing my music is the rediscovery of artists. Thanks to the digitalizing, I’ve tracked down at least a dozen artists and found what they’ve been doing since I first heard their music, including The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Michelle Shocked, Kirsty McColl, and Mark Graham. My latest re-discovery is Sam Weis, a twelve-string guitar player and writer of original songs from Washington State.
I don’t remember the first time I heard Weis, but it must have been at a Rogue Folk concert at the WISE Hall in East Vancouver. Possibly, I’d run across her previously at regional science fiction conventions; if not, it was someone remarkably similar. She had a vaguely punk sensibility that appealed to the front-row lesbians who seemed to attend every local folk concert in those days, and a twelve-string guitar that seemed almost too big for her and with which she could do almost anything. I especially remember the audience joining on the “Ride, ride, ride” chorus of “Til We’ve Seen It All,” and many of those around me crying at the longing expressed in the song.
At some point, we bought her Restless album, and over the years I played it often. But the CD lost its cover, and Weis seemed to be performing less, perhaps concentrating on her painting, which she also does professionally. Occasionally, I searched the Internet for her, but never found anything.
It was only last week, as I searched through my digital collection, that I realized that I had been looking for “Weiss,” adding an erroneous “s” to the end of her name. Having grabbed a clue, I located and downloaded her other three albums, and have been enjoying them for the past six days.
Finding an analogy for Sam Weis’ work isn’t easy, because it appeals in a number of different ways. Listening to her cover of “Dancing Barefoot,” I might compare her to Patti Smith with a stronger voice and better guitar work. Listening to “’55 Ford,” you might mistake her for a rocker. Her instrumental “Helix” is reminiscent of the Scottish harp duo Sileas. Another instrumental, “Train to Blue Sky” sounds like something the Allman Brothers might have recorded in their heyday, while “Breakfast with Bob” has an acoustic quietness. Philosophical pieces like “Why Not Utopia?” are reminiscent of Tori Amos in expression, while “Seven Sisters Road” suggests Michelle Shocked feeling nostalgic. Some critics have compared her to Joan Armatrading because of her probing relationship songs.
All these comparisons have a grain of insight, and none is accurate by itself, if only because Weis’ versatility is always supported by her strong guitar skills and a voice that, while ordinary in range, has a husky vibrato that suggests ambiguity and repressed emotion, making it second to very few in expression.
At times, her lyrics teeter at the edge of triteness, often as she finds herself boxed in by a scarcity of non-cliched rhymes. Such low points are especially likely to happen when she waxes philosophical in songs like “Why Not Utopia?” or “Shape of Time.” Not that such songs aren’t redeemed by the arrangements, but tackling such topics in a three or four minute song is only slightly easier than doing so on Twitter.
By contrast, Weis’ lyrics are at their height when she deals with personal emotions, whose complexities and ambiguities she expresses better than almost anyone. For instance, in “Seven Sisters Road,” she talks about youthful sessions with friends “where we invented destiny / And traded rage for poetry.”
Her lyrics are at their best when describing the intricacies of love in plain language. In “Restless Heart,” for example, she pleads, “Open up and let me come in / My lessons have been learned and I want to try again” and invites her lover to “slow dance on the back porch.” Similarly, in “Moment to Moment,” she expresses the obsessiveness of love with:
I don’t want to spend one more night
With you on my mind,
I’m going to be so tough when I pretend
I can leave this love behind.
However, my personal favorite remains “Til We’ve Seen It All.” I suppose you might argue that, in modern times, a song about cruising the highways with a lover isn’t environmentally correct. All the same, the poignancy remains despite such quibbles:
This is how I see
The golden American Dream,
Three thousand miles of asphalt,
Four wheels and a holy machine;
I’ve been chasing the illusion
Like an astronaut running down a star,
The dream to go fast, go hard,
Go now and go far.
I’m sure that the only way that any listener can fail to be moved by the longing is if they’ve completely given up their own ambitions and dreams.
None of this is to dismiss Weis’ instrumentals – just to say that I’m more qualified to discuss her words. Instrumentals like “Cosmo and Peanut” and “Helix” from her just-released album Paradox have already kept me sane while riding public transit, and I plan on them doing the same many times in the future. The fact is, all Weis’ albums have a permanent place on my music player, and I”ll happily listen to whatever other music she releases.
The only question I have is: Why isn’t this artist better known?