Anthony Wilson's "Songs and Photographs" Takes Listeners (and Viewers) to a Protected Space

One of the Anthony Wilson-shot photographs in the coffee table quality photobook housed within Songs and Photographs’s handsome, textured paper slipcase— along with the jacketed 180 gram LP (Goat Hill Recordings GHR-005)—is of a church’s red brick back wall, in front of which are three gravestones. The late afternoon sun casts against the wall three long offset shadows.

Normally I’m a “page flipper” photography consumer. Picture of an abandoned car? “Sad”. Picture of a bird soaring well above a cross-shaped “multiple dwelling” bird house without openings? “Freedom” (turns out it’s a feeder, not a house). Picture of a cleanly sawed, vine-covered tree-stump angled on the ground? “Death, renewal”. Bird’s nest perched near the end of broken limb in winter? “Different take on the same theme”.

The three gravestone photo stopped me. The central stone’s large cross makes its shadow easy to identify. A second shadow is of one of the two other similarly shaped monuments. The third shadow is cast by a tree not visible in the picture and one of the stones doesn’t cast a shadow at all. What’s more, the width of the second stone’s shadow more closely resembles what the missing stone’s shadow would look like had it not been swallowed by the tree’s shadow. There’s another shadow cast by something spikey off-camera, or is it badly removed graffiti?

Normally I’d not have given that picture more than a quick, appreciative ADHD glance (had this been a diagnosis when I was kid I’d have been given it and treated for it and I’m glad that didn’t happen). I lingered on it because Wilson’s music was providing a safe personal atmospheric space for such contemplation but had I come up with a glib reaction it might have been "the unseen casts a long shadow".

No doubt he’d prefer the listening be concentrated and without distraction, but he’s only got himself to blame. He provided it! The photobook demands and will get your attention and over time it will enhance rather than distract from the music. On his website Wilson writes “In Songs and Photographs the visual and musical paths of my process converge into a single work in which the songs and the photographs speak back and forth to each other.”

The lyrics to side one’s closer “In Canton” are printed on the other side of the shadow picture. One couplet stood out: “Dust in the finder, haze in the lens/Perspectives that warp, shadows that bend”. I have no idea if putting that song’s lyrics there was purposeful or whether I’m reading more into all of this than Wilson intended, but does that matter? Not really. The point of art is to provoke.

In this case the provocation is a calmative balm that forces the listener to shut out the current world’s craziness and enter Wilson’s contemplative musical and lyrical ecosphere aided here by an intimate, transparent recording that sets a sonic stage and lingers effortlessly there throughout. Put the booklet down, turn out the lights, relax and just listen.

The guitarist is as adventurous here as he’s been throughout his career as a group leader and accompanist for everyone from Willie Nelson to Paul McCartney to Kenny Burrell and as a regular member of Diana Krall’s group, though nothing here is as raucous as his Groove Note organ trio recordings. Plus on some tracks he sings sensitively and evocatively.

The musical settings vary from the more straight ahead syncopated jazz of “Song From a Dream” to the Ry Cooder-like Americana of the traditional “Great Dream From Heaven”, which sounds like it could be in the soundtrack to a Ken Burns documentary. Below (with permission) you can stream “While We Slept”, the lyrics of which encapsulate for me the safe place to which Wilson intends for the album to transport the listener. Side one’s song titles set the mood: three songs about dreams and sleeping and a side closer that opens with the lines “It’s so hard to fall and to stay asleep”.

Though it sounds like an album closer, the lightly countrified title tune “Songs and Photographs” opens side two with a lyric that sums up the album’s eclectic contents: “There isn’t one thing/That doesn’t belong/In songs and photographs”. “Listening to My Hearbeat” follows and includes the line “I guess I had to come here/To slow down my mind/Slow down my mind”. That’s a good description of the album’s calmative effects. “Fear of Losing” is for me the album’s most affecting poetry, and now I’ll stop the “play by play” other to write that presenting in a recording this level of musical intimacy is both daring and difficult.

While the closing song’s lyrics are of a very personal nature they can also be taken as a more open invitation to soar. When the final strains of “Over the Sea” fade out, you’ll know you’ve been taken somewhere special and secure if just for two sides of a vinyl record album.

Wilson’s liquid playing on this record soothes and circles with musical gestures one more striking than the next, surrounded by a sympathetic and at time provocative backing group consisting of Gerald Clayton on piano, Joshua Crumbly on bass, Patrick Warren on keyboards, samples, organ, pump organ and dulcitone and Jay Bellerose on percussion that includes a pipe-bomb of a kick drum stomp that will challenge and perhaps defeat your cartridge so be prepared.

The production by Wilson and “Tone Poet” Joe Harley (a name given by Charles Lloyd and worn somewhat uncomfortably by Harley) and Michael C. Ross’s engineering delivers a “who needs tape?” digital recording. I know it’s risky to write that here, but listen and try arguing otherwise. The transparency, three-dimensionality and instrumental and vocal “body” rival the best tape recordings I can think of and the background blackness out of which all of this emerges, betters them all. The three dimensional picture the recording paints is vivid and the bottom end weight will make your speakers throb in a good way. The record is cut to close to the label and the bass drum is not easily tracked! If your reaction is “then who needs physical media?” you’ve not seen the package and the book, which is necessary to fully appreciate the experience.

Speaking of which, since our template doesn’t include graphic production, and those involved deserve credit here you go: “All printed components…were produced at Little Steidl in Göttingen, Germany, designed by Nina Holland. Binding by Hartmut Köhler Buchbinderei in Rodgau, Germany. The paper is GardaPat Kiara 150 gsm, an acid-free, wood-free, coated paper produced without optical brighteners at Cartiere del Garda in Riva del Garda, Italy. The colored boards are from Cartonnerie Jean in Bonnat, France”—which is another way of saying that the physical product is as special as the music and the recording.

Enjoy ”While We Slept” recorded using the Top Wing Red Sparrow cartridge, SAT CF-09 arm, Continuum Caliburn turntable and Ypsilon VPS-100 phono preamp with Ypsilon MC-16L SUT.

Music Direct Buy It Now

Jim Tavegia's picture

I checked in Sony Sound Forge with another file in my library and it is not in my playback gear through a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, but in the file itself. The file in 2496, otherwise, sounds great.

Joe Harley's picture

That is the buzz on Anthony's amplifier Jim. When his hands touch the strings, it stops. A common issue when recording guitarists using certain guitars/amps.

Jim Tavegia's picture

and people always think I am crazy when I hear things they have over looked and some, like this, you can't do much about. I am guessing there is a fix somewhere in the electrical world, though. I am sure it is frustrating to you when you have some little thing interfere with a great recording and artist. FFT has been a great thing to help me pinpoint noises and where they fall now that my nearly 72 year old ears often can't.

miguelito's picture

The digital version does not have this hum.

Michael Fremer's picture
If someone removed the hum for that version because if there was hum in my transfer just at the beginning and then it was gone, it couldn't be in the transfer...unless it was throughout....
miguelito's picture

Firstly, the hum is faint and less noticeable the louder the track gets. But I can hear the hum throughout the track. It is only noticeable when listening with headphones. Listen to the very end of the track, for example, when the music fades out.

Johnnyjajohnny's picture

It's true that the hum is constant throughout the song, although it's most of the time overpowered by the music. It sounds like a ground wire is missing somewhere in the turntable setup. So it's not the guitar amp, but definitely something that comes from recording the LP. And yes, that hum is absent in the digital version.
On a completely different note, the beginning of the song was cut off, as there's actually a bit of guitar playing before he sings the first note, as can be heard on the Bandcamp page.

miguelito's picture

If it were in the recording, it would fade out with the fadeout at the end. It is in MF's setup and should be fixed.

miguelito's picture

No record needed. Just record a few seconds and you will likely still hear the hum.

miguelito's picture

more open, spacious, and musical than the 24/96 version from HDTracks (or the redbook from TIDAL). Wish the 24/96 came with the pics in a pdf. Thanks for doing this. Yes there's a bit of hum - I wonder if this is something hard to remove with such high gain setup (MC alone is like 60db gain at 1KHz, IIRC).

miguelito's picture

With a moving coil gain of prob around 65dB at 1KHz, the RIAA curve makes it about 80dB at 60Hz... It's probably hard to get a completely hum-free MC setup.

Johnnyjajohnny's picture

I used the plugin CurveEQ to compare this vinyl recording to the digital hi-res recording (and I cut off the beginning of the digitial version so it matched the vinyl version), and the resulting chart showed the frequency response of the cartridge and perhaps the phono preamp and tonearm (if we assume that the record was cut flat from the hi-res master), and it was more less what I had expected of this type of cartridge: From 50 Hz to just under 4 kHz, there was a drop in a straight line of just over 1,5 dB, and then the frequeny response went up quite drastically and by 20 kHz, the level was 9 dB higher than at 3,5 kHz.
That's the astounding accuracy you get when you pay $16,000 for a cartridge ;-).
All jokes aside, this type of sound is what many vinyl enthusiasts love, and many hyper expensive cartridges have this type of frequency reponse, including Lyra (although not completely identical), and the drop from the bass to the harshness range will make the sound a bit more relaxed, and the rise above the harshness range will at the same time make it sound airy. And I freely admit that as inaccurate as it is, I like this type of sound for many recordings as well. I just bought two new cartridges, and one of them has a 1 dB drop around 3 kHz and a 4,5 dB spike at 12 kHz (meaning it's 5,5 dB higher than at 3 kHz), and it makes many records, especially records from the 60s and 70s, sound much more exciting, fun and lively.
So, we just have to be honest about what it really is that makes the record sound "better" - it's not magic of vinyl or analogue, but frequency response :-)

sdecker's picture

Everywhere I looked this single LP seems to retail for $88! I'm all for good sound and good music, and have spent plenty on both, but for this price I'll make the best of 320k Spotify and MF's vinyl clip...
I hope your pair of 11s didn't recently raise the price from like $24.99.

miguelito's picture

Photo book + high quality vinyl press for $88 is not crazy.

Anthony Wilson's picture

Hello Sdecker -- "Songs and Photographs" is a single LP, that's true. But it's not the whole story, not in the least. It is a single LP (180g) pressed by RTI, packaged with a 48 page book of my photography, designed by Nina Holland of the art book publishing house Little Steidl, and printed -- by her alone -- on a 4-color analog offset printer, two colors at a time. The book was stitched and bound in a very particular way, so that it would lay flat, by a fourth-generation bindery in a small town near Frankfurt. The paper used for the book and the covers is of a quality that is not normally used in record packaging, from very small mills in Europe. The LP lives -- in its own sleeve and jacket, along with download card -- with the book, inside a slipcase. I only come on this forum and say this to help justify the $88 retail price. It is wholly consistent with what it cost to make this project. I hope you and other members of this forum will consider a purchase. It is an honest product and is not a ripoff.

miguelito's picture

Thank you so much for this album. I am a fan of all of your previous work. I like it more the more I listen to it! Fabulous!

miguelito's picture

Could not tell from the notes I see around on your website or Roon. Thx!

sdecker's picture

I read MF's review twice before my first post. As MF never mentioned the price and I read his album reviews focused on the music and sonics, I didn't quite understand that the quality of the book is where much of the money went into. $50 book, $38 LP & packaging? Thank you for clarifying.

miguelito's picture

I purchased the HDTracks version of the album. However, it did not come with liner notes. Is there a way to get a pdf of the liner notes? I would be happy to purchase a pdf with the pics as well if that’s available.

Anthony Wilson's picture

Hello Miguelito -- There is no PDF version of the full photobook. There is however a PDF that contains the song lyrics and album credits. It is offered by my distributor (The Orchard) to digital services along with the tracks, but maybe not every service takes it. I will be glad to send you that if you send a message to me on the contact page of my website. anthonywilsonmusic [dot] com

And yes, it is me singing on all songs with vocals.

Thank you very much for supporting this project. It has been a labor of love for all of us.

avanti1960's picture

i wish i could get a refund.

anomaly7's picture

Thanks for the review MF. You know just what to say to get me to spend my money. My copy arrived today and it’s as nice to look at as it is to listen too.