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Citizen Cope

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About"Something is great about this one." The phrase buzzed around in my head, mixing with the endorphins that cracked and snapped about their different relays, telling me that I liked this music. This music is good. The beer in your hand is good.* You are loving this, aren't you? Aren't you?

Singer/Song Writer, Citizen Cope recently headlined in Towson's Recher Theatre, a large dimly lit room washed in blood red drapes. Two bars, bouncers at the door who think they're funny, an entrance covered in music posters: enough ambiance to make you dream of owning rooms filled with nothing but silk pillows and feathery boas. Brilliance -- all of it.

His music is simple to the point of being stripped down, as if bearing it all was the only way to get our attention. The Spartan band behind him was made up of a drummer, a bassist, two keyboardists, and Cope on guitar. A mix of hip-hop, folk, and blues his songs are mostly beats - mix bass drum, high hat, snare, clap track and repeat - buffed smooth by a haggard, road-weary voice. Uncommon chords for texture and keyboards for lift.

I was there in the middle of a crowd that hung on Mr. Cope's every word. You have probably been in a situation like this one before. If you have seen a favorite artist live, you know the procedure. Stand elbow to elbow with lovers in varied states of decay - high school to golden years - and you reach clumsily into your bag of lyrics, struggling to throw them out in time with everybody else. Nevertheless, you dance, sway back and forth and put your chin to your chest to feel that beat and buzz in your rib cage. Somebody screams, "You're melting my face!" Artist finishes up a song and you try to guess what's coming next. You are loving this, aren't you?

But even as I enjoyed myself like everyone else, the experience unsettled me. Cope is an intensely powerful lyricist. Without useless contemplation or pretension, you sense a plain type of grief laced in his words. A grief at once deeply personal, but one that managed to untether me from the scene, causing me to think about what I was listening to. His song topics range from a laundry list of tragedy in "Let the Drummer Kick That" to exploration of danger of American jingoism in "Bullet and a Target." One of my favorites, his song "Penitentiary" taps into fears for a culture growing more trapped by fear and war: "Well I'm waiting on a time when people walk free to see/From the penitentiary in our mind/When there's no need to bleed/For your father/Or your son."

One Rolling Stone critic called him "a modern day bluesman who paints a plaintive portrait of the human condition." Another, not-so-friendly critic from music and culture website, SoundtheSirens said: "I'm sure there's some soulful guy with a guitar who can write better songs sitting in some coffee shop somewhere who deserves the exposure more than he does." This may be warranted, I just happen to disagree.

As a balding-twenty-something tapped his toe to the beat of "Sideways" against my heal, I was reminded of a perplexing moment a few months prior. I had created a Citizen Cope "station" on an Internet radio website called Pandora. If you have not used Pandora before, its program takes an artist that you give it and plays the music of similar artists based on style and genre.Normally, Pandora is right on, accurate as anyone could hope for. But the artists that Pandora surrounded Cope with -- Damien Rice, Jack Johnson, Ryan Adams, Howie Day, Beck -- sound nothing like him, perhaps Beck being the closest. I won't say that no one sounds like Citizen Cope -- that cannot be justified. However, one has serious trouble placing him in any sort of context. This frustrates me, because I need musical landmarks, but at the same time I don't want them. All the qualifiers, folk, hip-hop, blues, singer/song writer, suddenly seem vapid -- a lame attempt to conjure context out of thin air.

Good artists can recreate the high people get from good music -- that electricity that makes the crowd sway. After all, that heightened sense, so amazingly replicable across cultures, is what makes music a universal human constant. But the excitement that surrounds great artists -- painters, musicians, writers, and doers alike -- is that you as if you are in the presence of someone who is saying what no else is able to or willing to say. I felt the unsettling electricity in Cope's performance -- the feeling that I could not do this, nor would I ever want to. Who could bear being the only one for long? There's something great about this one.

This line of thinking is flawed. I argue that Citizen Cope is great, but that just makes him great to me. To you he could be anything or nothing. But he got a reaction out of me, a departure from normalcy that left me buzzing afterwards, and it's hard to find words that aren't useless contemplation. Words that avoid shameless worship to someone who does not want to be worshipped. But I knew I was doomed to fail when I started this.

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