Songs I Wish I’d Written: At Her Open Door

Dead Meadow is a weird animal: an indie band that started in DC, but with a heavy marijuana allegiance that made them more simpatico with west-coast outfits like Fu Manchu or Sleep than local indie heroes like Jawbreaker or Nation of Ulysses or Fugazi. Little surprise, then, that they wound up relocating to California around 2006.

Their work rarely breaks new ground, but total originality isn’t always what you want to hear. Sometimes you want something that travels an old, well-worn groove, but still shows you something different during the ride.

Dead Meadow is extremely good at that. Their music is interesting, but also friendly, warm and comforting, in a way that suggests their childhoods were spent absorbing  Zep/Sabbath/Blue Cheer 8-tracks in their parents’ basements. With the occasional Jethro Tull deep cut.

In other words, Dead Meadow aren’t trying to reinvent anything: they sound completely satisfied just to be doing their thing. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, but unless you really dig sludgy 1970s hard rock, most of their songs are not something you really need to hear.

But then there’s their third studio album, Feathers, which Matador records put out in 2005. If you like heavy, maybe without so much metal, and you like psychedelia, and you think they’re two great tastes that go great together, then you really need to hear this one.

While still firmly ensconced in their hazy 70s vibe, on Feathers Dead Meadow pushed against the expected boundaries, subtly but in a way that ultimately exerts great force. Its charms are best exemplified by this track, which fills me with profound jealousy every time I hear it.

I don’t know what it means that Dead Meadow singer and guitarist Jason Simon, without any indication of self-consciousness or irony, appears to wear an actual rug in this video. But who cares, because what really matters is how the music makes you feel.

This song scratches an itch I didn’t even realize I had.

The secret weapon Dead Meadow deploys so brilliantly on this album is…..wait for it….a second guitarist. Big whoop, right? After all, twin-guitar bands are hardly rare, so the fact that this power trio included a second guitar for this album is not all that exciting. What makes this so different is the new guy mostly just plays slide. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that adding slide guitar to a band obsessed with big 70s-styled rock is the kind of idea that would sound good only after an afternoon of bong-fueled laziness, but damn if it doesn’t work.

Dead Meadow starts this song with a dreamy, descending slide-guitar melody that gently lands in a bed of mid-tempo bass and drums and arpeggiated rhythm guitar. The song itself follows an interesting and atypical pattern, and seems to drift from verse to chorus in an almost random way, and that feeling of spacey drifting is underscored by the swooping slide guitar. The lyrics seem to pay no attention to where the “verse” and the “chorus” begins, as a line that begins in one gets completed in the other. It’s strange, but it works.

The lyrics depict obsessive striving for an unattainable goal, symbolized by a woman who will take whatever you have to give, but remains completely unaffected by what you have to offer:

Gifts of gold lie undisturbed at her open door
Give until nothing’s left then want to give more
Her words ring out all too clearly in your ears
Until all else disappears in a never-ending night
She shines like boundless light
Though she calls quietly
Know she’ll take it all

But here’s a case where the lyrics complement the music, rather than the other way around. That slide guitar, mysterious and ethereal, defines the mood of the song. The only forebear that immediately comes to mind is David Gilmore’s slide work on Pink Floyd’s “Breathe.” But there, the slide seems almost like an afterthought: it’s lovely, but the song could work equally well without it, or with a different instrument. In contrast, the slide in “At Her Open Door” seems integral. It makes the song genuinely psychedelic, and does it without succumbing to the usual tropes and cliches, however beloved, we associate with psychedelia.

To my chagrin as a listener, Dead Meadow’s second guitarist left the band before they recorded the follow-up to Feathers. But as a musician, I’m excited by the possibilities they didn’t pursue. Dead Meadow opened the door on this unexpectedly rich dimension of heavy distortion and swooping slide, but they didn’t explore it very long. There’s more territory that could be staked out.

The Long Afternoon’s sole track to feature a slide guitar to date is “Never Tell” from Signifying Nothing. This song was written years before Dead Meadow even formed. I like what we did with it, but hearing it now makes me wonder how much further we might have gone with this. Or might still go…

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