“Flatland” was a simple piece of lo-fi Americana by a defunct band called Red Leaf Black Bird, but for me, there was a strange abstract quality to its catch-all melancholy. It made me think about a concept that boggled my mathematically un-formed mind: the concept that one infinity can be greater than another. If my fellow simpletons want to be amazed, scandalized, and thrilled, I recommend reading the NY Times piece that inspired these misguided musings.
In“Flatland,” a girl, Kelly Nyland, sings about a landscape she’s left behind. In her sweetly grating drawl, we’re told of “four fucking seasons” that cannot compare to the majesty of the “sweet heat” she’s left behind. Or at least that’s how it seems. The song is not specific enough to be sentimental about that one place, and irrelevant to alternative experience. The line, “yeah, I’ve been thinking, thinking ‘bout drinking” and “when I go back home, remember being so stoned, a memory for every corner I passed” describes the way memory works for most people: it’s played like a record whenever certain triggers, like the needle, move across the deeply scored grooves of association. It accesses great depths, even as it moves between surface locations that seem arbitrarily related.
The concept of that much loved but bleak flatland illustrates the arbitrary nature of memory. Though places in memory may be flat and bleak, they’re treasured because the view from the present gives them perspective and depth. Which brings us back to those two infinities. To me, it seemed as if the bigger infinities that the article defines as the set of real numbers were those of fathomless depth and the smaller ones were integers representing the only reference points that we have along the surface of these depths. Metaphorically speaking, it’s as if we have an infinite index for the set of infinities… a phonebook for missed connections. I’m sure this math analogy is faulty, but its value to me was to make me think of memory as a paradox of flatness and depth. Memory is something we re-encounter in deep gulps, as we take a restless circuit of old, familiar places. Re-familiarization – not just de-familiarization — can be strange and haunting, as “Flatland” describes.
It seems that Red Leaf Black Bird never released their album except as a brief digital download, which I couldn’t afford then. I later bought a Trevor Montgomery album instead. Montgomery, with Angel Deradoorian of the Dirty Projectors and Kelly Nyland, was one of a collective of musicians who was making this music as a side project. Even though the tunes were new, they had the lost-penny feel of everyday objects being worked into a temporary shape by restless hands.
A blogger at the time made the spot-on association with the most structurally basic, most relentlessly simple blues – songs like “House of the Rising Sun,” songs of an element – like fire or a storm, constructed out of simple arpeggios. If you listen to some of Trevor Montgomery’s subsequent efforts you’ll hear more of that sound – but Red Leaf Black Bird, and Flatland in particular, is where the lyrics and music come together as if they were two vital co-ordinates pinpointing a dreary place, but a place where infinite depths are strangely accessible. Home, perhaps – or one of them.