In a 2006 radio interview, Jon Brion—the producer, songwriter, and all-around musical genius—explains his thoughts on the differences between “songs” and “performance pieces.” He says “Recording has killed people’s ability to hear songs purely as chord change, melody, and lyric.”
Brion uses two contrasting examples to illustrate his point: George Gershwin, who wrote songs, and Led Zeppelin, who specialized in performance pieces. “[You could play] a Gershwin song... in the style of Led Zeppelin and have a completely satisfying experience,” Brion opines. “But when you start playing Zeppelin songs in the style of, say, 1920s music, suddenly it’s laid bare that it was about those people, and those people were in a room, and it was great, and I love it—but I consider it a performance piece.”
Whether or not you agree with the sentiment, Transference attests to the timeless and mutable nature of a bulletproof chord change, melody, and lyric. The album was born out of a novel premise: The producers at Portland music agency and record label Marmoset unearthed a collection of century-old songs they felt were ripe for reinterpretation.
But Transference’s appeal isn’t limited to its heady concept. This is also a compilation LP featuring an all-star cast of some of the best musicians in Portland. The song most representative of Transference’s mission statement—and its centerpiece in general—is Dear Nora’s rendition of “Where the Morning Glories Grow,” a composition from 1917 that was performed, most notably, by Bing Crosby. Like her spellbinding rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” Dear Nora mastermind, Katy Davidson, imbues “Where the Morning Glories Grow” with a starry-eyed wistfulness all her own. It sounds distinctly like a Dear Nora song while also managing to be completely respectful of the source material.
Some songs take more liberties, but are no less enthralling. On opener “Hot Time in the Old Town,” Ural Thomas and the Pain reimagine an ancient rag as a soul romp for the ages, replete with slippery brass and fluttering tambourine. The song that deviates the most is the Helio Sequence’s “Out Among the Sheltering Pines,” a reworking of the standard “Down Among the Sheltering Palms,” which trades the original’s evocations of sunny landscapes for imagery more familiar to Pacific Northwesterners. Trends come and go, but as Transference proves over the course of its 10 tracks, good songwriting never dies.