Out of Toledo
by Alan Goldsmith
I went to high school outside of Toledo, our blue-collar neighbor city that Ann Arborites like to joke and feel culturally superior about. It's industrial, it's dark, and it has one foot in the 1950s, when America was the manufacturing center of the world. Even nice John Denver had a put-down song, "Saturday Night in Toledo," that cracked up audiences a couple of decades ago. Toledo gets no attention from the taste setters.
If you're in a rock band in Toledo, you're into it for the sheer love of it which is one reason I fell in love with the music of Sangsara, the quiet and ethereal group that makes some pretty spiritually kicking music. The focus of Sangsara is singer-songwriter Lyndsay Stiles, who plays keyboards and guitars. With a foundation of her churchy keyboard and low-key, clean guitar drones, Stiles and company bassist Dan Grunke, guitarist Matt Ruch, and drummer Ryan Grames create a kind of music that I fell in love with instantly.
Vocally, Stiles sounds like a female Lou Reed, or maybe closer to John Cale without the accent. She has the speaking/singing quality of Leonard Cohen but a bit more melodic, and she conveys a tranced-out coldness that melts nicely into the darkly angelic instrumentals. With perfect pitch and control, Stiles is an original who knows exactly what she wants to do with her voice and her band.
On tunes like "Traveling down the Line," a Cliffs Notes version of being at peace with the cycle of life and death, and "Bardo," a travel guide about the passage from death back to life, Sangsara's spiritual foundation is front and center. And you don't have to have a copy of the Book of the Dead on your coffee table to be moved by the music any more than you have to be a fundamentalist Christian to be rocked by the Blind Boys of Alabama. All great music has a connection with the soul, and Sangsara is following in that tradition. And when these musicians turn to loss and the pain of earthly attachments, as they do on "The Saddest Love Song," they are making great rock 'n' roll.
Sangsara will be playing at Ypsilanti's Elbow Room which always gives me Toledo flashbacks on Saturday, March 19.
[Originally published in March, 2005.]