We have already seen the pandemic bring us back in time. Suddenly, we are out of flour because people are cooking bread in their homes. We’re cutting our own hair. Puzzles are in high demand.
One can only hope that people will also rediscover the artform that is the long-playing record. If only as an exercise in mindfulness, the practice of listening intently to the way an artist or band has constructed a set of songs to deliver meaning (or not) seems well suited to aimlessness our current situation can encourage.
This week, a couple of new records certainly fit the bill: Golden Rules the Thumb’s “After the Brass,” released to streaming on April 3, and Jeff Beam’s latest, a self-titled record that drops on April 17. Both are the kind of thoughtful, well-constructed works that allow for deep listening and discoveries that build with repeated listens.
You might even learn something.
Golden Rules the Thumb, for example, features Jonas Eule often providing an underlying drone with something called a Shruti box, which investigation reveals to be essentially an accordion made from a backgammon case, a bellows that allows for single notes and harmonic chords. Who knew?
The effect is a wash of sound that supports tunes like “Lucinda River,” providing body to fill out what starts as an acoustic strummer and builds upon themes of isolation that should resonate: “I see you, but I can’t picture you … it’s another time.”
It is, indeed. But Tyler Jackson, the project’s frontman – who paired with Eule on past projects Foam Castles and Endless Jags – also delves into surrealism and psychedelia over the course of nine songs and a reprise that amble into ’60s pop, folk-rock, and light electronics.
Shannon Allen’s electric cello breathes something hopeful and sunshiney into “Life Was Good,” evoking the Mamas and the Papas, but it’s now hard to hear lyrics like “life was good in April, when I thought it could be something to age gracefully” in the way they were likely intended. The art created in different times insists on being interpreted differently by today’s listeners. When Jackson mentions “a month of disquiet, two months of disquiet” it is the perfect description of the situation in which we find ourselves: disquiet.
How long will our disquiet last?
In “How Long,” opening with a funky bassline and a snare-heavy backbeat, Jackson posits that “hell isn’t that far down,” but the Charlatans UK and Blur vibes keep the tone ironic instead of utterly grim. It’s unfortunate that the vocals sometimes are a little buried in the mix, so that it’s hard to make out what Jackson is saying, but maybe that ambiguity is part of the point: “An Austrian red is making its way to my head.”
Beam seems downright prophetic with “It’s All Gonna Come Crashing Down,” an atmospheric and spare track that feels as ephemeral as our societal frameworks right now. “How is it,” he nearly whispers, “we allow such pain”? A rat-a-tat-tat snare keeps the song from drifting completely away. What roots us to reality?
It’s hard not to empathize when Beam, in “Peripheral,” offers that, “all I know is that I need a break/ Can you take a chance and believe in me?” There is an urgency here, in the bass open and the ’80s rock drive, that Beam hasn’t often featured. These songs hang together and are more focused than much of his psych-heavy back catalog, and he seems to have found a voice that he’s comfortable with, still employing effects, but with a lighter touch.
Just when you’re feeling comfortable, though, there is a swallowing echo effect that makes the lyrics often flutter in your consciousness: “If you hear it, you will know the way.”
In total, the two records share a quality with Radiohead’s “Kid A” or “In Rainbows,” where depth and meaning are often revealed in repeated listens. The vocals are as much for effect as information delivery. What’s that sound? Two instruments or one? Is that a Casio beat or an organic percussion instrument? These investigations are perfect for headphone listening with the lights off, or while staring out the window.
Maybe you have a little more time for that sort of thing right now.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 things to find on the internet
1 — While Spouse has been on hiatus for some time, their Facebook page went live on April 7, and José Ayerve’s emotions were easily felt, even though he was in his kitchen in Ecuador. A bit of a trial run, he played electric guitar and sang “Success,” the final track from Spouse’s 2010 record, “Confidence.” His keening wail has never been more comforting.
2 — Zach Jones went live on April 12 and his brand of R&B crooning is perfect for our times and the format. While Facebook live broadcasting can be a bit daunting for studio pros, there’s no need to hide behind anything for him. A six-string and a computer mic is all he needs – alongside his warm and generous personality.
3 — Weakened Friends and the State Theatre gave us all a treat on April 3, when the band streamed a full show from their house to Facebook, where all three live together. Seeing the drums in the living room, guitar in the bedroom, and bass in the kitchen, all playing together, was something truly surreal.
4 — KGFREEZE bucked the trend on April 3 and streamed only to Instagram. In case you were looking to see his bare chest once again.
5 — On April 11, One Longfellow Square hosted Darlin’ Corey, husband-and-wife team of Matt Shipman and Erica Brown, for some down-home bluegrass and folk that should satisfy your desire for tight acoustic work.
— Sam Pfeifle