I typically bang out two or three bios a month, and most of my subjects turn out to have interesting stories, which I treat little differently than magazine profiles. But rarely do I fall totally in love with a record that comes to me through a bio assignment. That's what happened last month with Pictures And Sound (bandleader Luke Reynolds insists on calitalizing the "A" in "And"), so much so that I wrote the most personal bio ever, and did do under my own name, which is something I almost never do. Here it is.
As a music journalist, you live for that moment when you put on a record by some group you never heard of and it blows you away before Track One hits the first chorus. That’s what happened to me the other day with the self-titled first album from Pictures And Sound. The first cut, “Everything Leaves A Mark,” hooked me from the opening riff, and the aerodynamic groove of the next one, “The Last Ocean,” lifted me right out of my chair. Before I knew it, I’d zipped through the whole damn album, and I never do that anymore—not with 15,000 tracks a click away in my iTunes library.
Not only have I been playing Pictures And Sound compulsively ever since, I’ve been waking up every morning with one or another of these songs in my head. The closest parallel I can come up with is the feeling of excitement that coursed through me the first time I heard Spoon’s Kill the Moonlight, Arcade Fire’s Funeral and Kings of Leon’s Because of the Times, in each case realizing, as soon as I’d gotten over my initial shock, that I’d happened upon an record destined for my year-end top 10.
The spaces are as important as the sounds on Pictures And Sound, which is almost binary in its focus—you won’t hear a syllable, note or drum hit that isn’t purposeful, that doesn’t bring something to the whole. That applies to both subject matter and groove because, like the best rock, these tracks engage the mind and body all at once. The vocals convey rhythm and as well as melody and lyrics, and certain lines seem emblazoned in neon. Lines like: “I’ve thought of you from a hundred different directions/And none of them are right” (“100 Directions”), “It feels like everything’s about to change” (“Big Screen”) and “It’s you I love, not just the thought of you” (“It’s You”). Then there’s “Every War,” as powerful a topical song as this tumultuous decade has produced; the fact that the great Willie Nelson duets and plays a signature guitar solo on it doesn’t hurt, either. This record is smart, visceral and immediate, and every moment of it rings true.
Eager for info, I did the drill, Googling the band name, which took me to Pictures And Sound’s MySpace page. There I discovered that the band is the brainchild of writer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Luke Reynolds, the former leader of Blue Merle, who put out one intriguing album on Island in 2005. I was further intrigued when I read his list of influences: “A collective love of art, painting, dub, the woods, deep winter, vintage hoodies, old keyboards, pedal steel, snowboarding, coffee, Dylan Thomas, Robert Frost, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Rainer Maria Rilke, Neruda, Barry Lopez, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edward Abbey, Blind Willie Johnson, Paul Simon, Neil Young, Steve Reich, James Gadson.” Now, how particular is that?
I also discovered the band is a trio, with bassist Dave Wilder (Liz Phair, Ghostface Killah, Macy Gray) and drummer Pete McNeal (Jem, Cake, Rickie Lee Jones), both based in L.A. Jacquire King (Modest Mouse, Tom Waits, Kings of Leon) produced, engineered and mixed the album at various studios in Nashville, where he (as well as Reynolds, sporadically throughout the year) reside.
Then I got Luke on the phone from Vermont, where he was visiting his mom and dad. Up front, he described himself as “a real high-energy person,” and the lively ensuing conversation bore that out and then some. Turns out the 29-year-old artist is a fifth-generation Vermonter, and the 10 songs that wound up on the album have been culled from an outpouring of 115 pieces written in a sustained run of inspiration over the course of two and a half years.
A chunk of it went down during the summer and fall of 2006, following the breakup of Blue Merle. Seeking the most inspiring environment he could think of as the setting for his creative process, Reynolds left Nashville and headed north into the Vermont woods with a truckload of instruments, recording gear and a bunch of “visual records” for inspiration, including Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. For five months, he slept in a tent on a mountainside above a 19th century grain mill, turning the basement into a makeshift studio—essentially doing a modern-day version of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond retreat (Reynolds is big on the New England Pantheists). Out of that initial woodshedding came two keepers, “Every War” and “Big Screen,” along with an exponential increase in focus and discipline.
“Big Screen,” featuring his mystic pedal steel over a rolling-gaited groove, considers the parallels this artist and filmmaker finds between sounds and visuals. “I often watch snow, skate and surf films for inspiration,” he says, “just as I listen to music when I’m snowboarding. Or when I’d take breaks from the grain mill to go to the skateboard park and listen to music to see how it affected my moods. I watch for inspiration; this music is very visual.”
Which leads us to the name of the band or, more precisely, the concept. “I wanted the opportunity to reinvent myself over and over again, and it was freeing to work under a different name,” Reynolds explains.
When it got too cold to live in the tent, Reynolds went on the road, opening for the North Mississippi Allstars. He spent the winter near the Canadian border, teaching music and painting to kids with learning disabilities. He continued the writing process while traveling around the U.S. and Europe, heading to L.A. every six months to work up new material with McNeal and Wilder, whom he describes as “my tight, tight, tight friends, who made the music richer and wider.”
Reynolds conceived “100 Directions” in Barcelona after visiting the Picasso Museum and having an epiphany while gazing at the works of one of his favorite artists. “It all came together for me in the Cubist exhibit,” he recalls. “I was hit over the head by the realization that there are ways, at least on canvas, to simultaneously view a subject from multiple perspectives in order to get a more accurate read on it. And in order to make sense of anything, really, we have to look at it from all angles, because to look at just one doesn’t do justice to it at all. This song came out of that insight.”
Of “Everything Leaves a Mark,” which came to him in Austin, Reynolds says, “One recurring sentiment throughout the album is how everything we choose to touch, ingest, taste and do leaves its mark on us. The people we choose to surround ourselves with are an example of that.”
“The Last Ocean,” inspired in Seattle, “poses the question, would knowing that something were the very first or very last of its kind change the way we choose to interact with it,” says Reynolds, “and what obligation comes with that knowledge?” The track clocks in at a blistering 2:16. “I wanted to play this groove for a really long time,” he adds. “After we recorded it, the vocal felt really off the cuff when I first listened back to it, just kind of spit out, and I’m really glad we kept it. The attitude reminds me of a lot of records I love that have left their mark on me.”
Reynolds had earmarked the gospel-tinged “Forever to Reach,” written in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, as “the centerpiece of the album before we started recording. But now I see it as a part of the whole. It fits in with ‘The Last Ocean,’ ‘Every War’ and ‘The Youth.’ Pete and Dave’s grooves had a huge impact on this track. The final rewrite I brought with me into these sessions had a lot of drum machines on it and was very mechanical and rigid-sounding, which I liked. But we ended up tearing all of that out, because we actually found it limiting.”
“It’s You,” which has a lilting, summery feel, came out of one of Reynolds’ L.A. trips. He says it took him a week of writing to nail the payoff line, “You’re the proof I use to measure what is true.” “We all have truths that we put to use as anchors when things get drifty,” he says. “For example, I use my feelings towards Vermont as a reminder that there are places out there where I feel rooted, and that’s what I set my crosshairs on to keep me cool when I feel all over the place. I love the fact that a place like that exists and the people there exist—and furthermore, to know without a moment’s hesitation that it’s the actual place, and not some romantic notion of the place, which is important to me.”
The band and King tracked the album over two weeks in the big room at Nashville’s House of David, with Reynolds hewing to the process of intensive rewriting throughout the sessions. “Everyone has their path,” he says “and for me this time, it just took how long it did in order to get things right leading up to recording. I feel like I’ve grown a lot and will be able to execute ideas better and faster in the future. As we were recording and working through the songs, some sections which I'd previously thought of as being been the strongest part of the lyric, had to be rewritten in order to better serve the overall intent. Nothing was precious to me because I think of myself not as a singer/songwriter, but as a team player, collaborator, bandleader and bandmate all in one. So I had no problem if cutting something out made a track hotter.”
Each day during those two weeks was spent one a particular song, as the band entered the studio with no preconceived parts, trying various approaches until they hit a collective breakthrough. “There’s real energy to the tracks because they were so new,” Reynolds points out. “We were going for a sound that I call ‘raw’ and Jacquire calls ‘white hot,’ and every night there was a 40-minute window when the band was hot and on it. So what you’re hearing is the first time we got it right.”
Considering the album as a whole, Reynolds says, “I’ve been trying to write songs that are wider and looser up close but coming more into focus at different times and in different ways for different people. I love paintings like that—the Impressionist painters who left space for you to have your own relationship with the piece.”
I have my own relationship with this piece of sound painting, so for me at least, I can confirm that Reynolds and his three talented and tuned-in collaborators did their jobs. Maybe this record won’t hit you as hard as it hit me. But then again, what if it does?