Ahh. I'm at Panera Bread in Winston-Salem and am relishing in contentment. For some reason I feel so at home in this type of setting - the combination of coffee, laptop, wireless internet, itunes, earphones. There are lots of people here and they're moving about and talking; but even the group of elderly ladies right across from me discussing in loud voices their recent health ailments (in great detail, I might add) doesn't bother me. In fact, if anything the constant motion helps me focus. Go figure.
So I tend to get a lot of things done. Just put the finishing touches on the first draft of Sunday's sermon and am prepping for a couple of meetings with church elders who work just around the corner from here. In the meantime I'm listening to an album that I think you should know about. Good music, and an interesting back story to go with it. The Welcome Wagon, they are called. They are the husband and wife team of Vito and Monique Aiuto. Technically the Reverend Vito Aiuto, to be exact. And he's not just any pastor, either. A Presbyterian minister. Now you understand my interest!
I first learned about The Welcome Wagon from Paste Magazine via a gift subscription from friend and fellow Mayberry musician Jerry Chapman. Incidentally, I'd highly recommend Paste to any music fans out there - a wonderful way to keep in touch with what's happening in all aspects of music, film, books, etc. Each issue comes with a CD sampler of the latest indie music; the kind of good stuff you won't hear on the radio. Well worth the subscription.
Back to the music. The Aiutos started singing together in the privacy of their living room with no ambitions of it going outisde those four walls. They had a particular drawing to old church hymns, and they made use of a hymn book with lyrics and guitar chords. The "problem" (if you want to call it that) is that neither of them had any real musical training, so they couldn't read the notes. While normally this would be a hindrance - not knowing the hymn's melody - it wasn't for them. They just made up their own.
Somehow this couple got hooked up with singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens, an eclectic musician in his own right. The end result is Welcome to the Welcome Wagon, which the Aiutos performed (along with some others) and Stevens produced and arranged. The result is intriguing to say the least. On one level the music is simple enough that it's easy to imagine you're sitting in the Aiuto's living room listening to them sing some simple hymns. There's nothing fancy about either Vito's guitar skills or their vocals - it's all pretty straightforward.
But then there's this entirely different dimension to the album's tracks which is undoubtedly Stevens' influence - the brass section, the honky-tonk piano, the slide guitar, the percussion, and the group of people singing (I hesitate to call it a choir because they don't really sing in parts and they literally sound like a group of people lounging around on couches singing along).
So it's this odd mix of simple and dynamic that makes for an incredibly intriguing sound. Take the album's opening track, Up on a Mountain. It begins with a simple acoustic lick, followed by Monique's vocals. There's a little bit of piano in there as well, but nothing that jumps out at you. And then the second chorus rolls around and you're introduced to that group-of-people singing a counter-melody, followed by these wonderful ascending/descending guitar arpeggios that seem to cascade down from the heavens and back up. What comes next? Why, trombone, of course; what would you expect? Best listened to with headphones on. And you're hooked.
The rest of the tracks don't deviate much from this format, but each song still has its own unique flavor. There's even a Smith's tune thrown in for good measure (Half a Person, if you're wondering). And by the time you finish listening to Deep Were His Wounds at the end of the album, you realize that what you've just heard is not as much the product of a duo as it is a trio. I don't know if Stevens actually plays on the tracks, but his influence is so intertwined with the songs' arrangements and production that it's hard to imagine them without it. It's actually pretty cool when that sort of thing happens.
You don't have to like old hymns to appreciate the musicality of this record. Or Presbyterian ministers, for that matter. But it doesn't hurt. You can find The Welcome Wagon on itunes or emusic.com. Give it a listen and see if it's your thing. I'm betting that after a few times around you'll conclude that it is.