Shearwater: “Henry Lee” (Snow Leopard EP, 2008)

Like, I’m sure, a lot of people, I first learned “Henry Lee” from the version by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey that appeared on Cave’s Murder Ballads LP. Aside from having one of my favorite videos (it’s uncomfortable, but so perfect for the song), it was dramatic, a sharp version of a very old song with a new, mostly wordless chorus that belied the hideous murder at the heart of the song.

"Henry Lee" has a long history. It came to the United States as the Scottish ballad "Young Hunting," a song that may actually have roots in Scandinavia, and while it fell out of the repertoire in its homeland, it established itself as one of the most played and most recorded murder ballads we have. Sometimes the title "Loving Henry" is used (there’s a related song called "Lowe Bonnie," too), but "Henry Lee" has become the standard most often used.

It’s a simple story, really. A woman is in love with Henry Lee, but he spurns her after leading her on, his own true love being far away in “that merry green land” (which could easily be Ireland or Scotland), so she stabs him to death, then enlists some local women to help throw him down a well and keep it a secret. Harvey and Cave list the murder weapon as a “little pen knife,” which is a mutation of the original “weapon knife” referenced in older versions, such as the defining recording made by Dick Justice for Harry Smith in 1929.

"Little pen knife" actually makes the crime seem more horrific. You’d have to really go at someone with a pen knife to kill them—the only reference point I have is Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.

Shearwater’s version uses the pen knife, too, but puts a very different musical spin on the song from any other I’ve heard. Older versions done in traditional styles tend to be disconcertingly nonchalant about the brutality of the crime they describe, while Cave and Harvey seem almost to lose themselves in the visceral details. Jonathan Meiburg sings it in a disarmingly gentle way, as though it were a lullaby for the murdered man, easing him into his final rest.

It’s chilling in its own way.

Fleet Foxes: “Ragged Wood” (Fleet Foxes, 2008)

I was in Chicago for the Pitchfork Festival this past weekend, which, honestly, as someone who writes for the site, is as much about meeting and seeing the people I work with as it is about watching bands. It’s been interesting over the years to see how we’ve all changed from year to year and where our lives have taken us. It’s also good to know that the people you’ve built these long-distance relationships with are all incredibly nice in person.

The performance that stuck with me most was Fleet Foxes’ Saturday night headlining set. I think they’re a truly great band. Back in 2008, when they won our albums poll, I remember a lot of people coming out of the woodwork to say they’re nothing special.

It’s fine not to like the band, but these people are wrong. The common knock on them—“folk with beards and harmonies, whatever”—seems to miss everything that’s special about them. First of all, they can really sing. All of them. Their harmonies are rich and complex—it’s not something you hear often. Most of what we call harmonies in our shorthand is actually just two people singing the same thing in unison.

These guys are usually singing four or five different parts, or breaking into sections to sing opposing lines. And they can do it live. That alone sets them apart. Someone I talked to this weekend marveled at the way Robin Pecknold seems to have a reverb unit built right into his throat.

But they’re also good songwriters with an interesting sense of structure. “Ragged Wood” was originally supposed to be the title track of the band’s first album, but they switched to self-titled just before the release. It remains a sprawling and unpredictable suite, though, passing through three movements that let the band touch on all of its strengths.

You get the shuffling, up-tempo first section, the pretty, quiet middle and the ascendant coda with the huge harmonies and chiming guitars. The instrumental texture changes, too, which is something these guys don’t get enough credit for. They’re great at combining sounds and changing the combinations to keep your ear engaged.

It’s academic-sounding, but these to me are the qualities of a band that thinks about sound and works to make its music more interesting and nuanced. It’s the difference between great bands and decent bands. On Saturday, Fleet Foxes were great.

TV On The Radio: “Lover’s Day” (Dear Science,, 2008)

Hard to believe the news about Gerard Smith. The TV On The Radio bassist/keyboardist died yesterday after a brief battle with lung cancer. He was just 36.

I don’t think I need to say much about TV On The Radio—they’re a popular band, currently touring in support of their new album (Smith was sitting the tour out for treatment). Smith joined the band in 2005 after working with them for a couple years before that—before joining the band, he busked in the New York City subway system, playing flamenco guitar. He later admitted that the main reason he stopped busking was that he’d been doing it without a permit, which is apparently punishable with jail time.

It’s quite a leap from the subway to Letterman, but he made it with the band, and he cut out a niche in their performances. He was the eye of the storm, standing stock still with his bass next to the drum kit, often not even looking toward the crowd. You can see an example in this 2006 performance on Letterman.

The band has canceled a bunch of shows, including the Detroit show I was going to attend, and I think that’s the best thing to do for the moment—it’s hard enough touring with one of your bandmates back home battling cancer; I can’t quite imagine going through the grind of traveling and performing in the days after his death. It’s always a shock when someone this young passes away. All I can do is offer condolences to his friends and family.