When last we left Jonathan Balzano Brookes, frontman for the late indie-pop Phantom Buffalo (neé Ponys), he was doing fanciful illustrations for Derek Jaskulski to animate the video for “Happy as Clams,” a song not necessarily pegged for children but chugging away on the internet, gathering millions of views from the toddler set.
The pairing was so good because both elements were so delightfully odd; Jaskulski’s hurdy-gurdy vocals and Brookes’ cartoon otherworld, where fish wear earrings and lipstick and clams take their socks off to get comfortable. And for at least a portion of the viewers, that song and video weren’t for kids at all, because they caught that the clams were “by a sewer pipe.”
Just as Brookes’ brand-new “The Greathart,” an 11-song solo album released by the French label Microcultures, isn’t nearly as lighthearted as its lilting and acoustic trappings would make it first appear.
There is a Mr. Rogers quality to what Brookes is doing, with his cartoon characters that wear medieval clothing and adorn his releases (three singles preceded the album) and his resonant falsetto that makes every lyric seem a bit like a lullaby. His gentleness masks a serious purpose, a fervent love of people, and a refusal to succumb to cynicism.
Nor does he try all that hard to hide it.
His opening “Remember Light” is a remonstrance, a demand that you “please be aware/ In times like these to not despair/ Won’t let this fear turn to hate.” It is also, with his “king” and simply arranged acoustic guitar, a scene- and mood-setting for what acts like a concept album, where characters vibrantly speak to you and bow and curtsy to you in their finery.
Folks looking for the upbeat vamp of Phantom Buffalo, full of bounce and oddities, will have to ramp down their expectations, as this is a quiet piece, where an electric guitar or a recorder might wander in, but you’re most likely to encounter finely finger-picked guitar, piano that picks out right-hand single-note melodies, and repeating phrases and strums.
In the second song, we are introduced to the titular beast, a golden stag who announces himself in the woods via a “halo of the purest light” and offers a vision of the future: “May all the sick and troubled souls find comfort now/ Don’t lose your hold/ May babies brought into this world have food to eat and loving homes.”
And, of course, we are shortly introduced to the huntress who would fire an arrow into this hart’s heart. But even she is sympathetic: “His fleece could fetch a fortune/ Which could release her dad.”
What’s an anti-carceralist to do?
There’s a rabbit hole you can go down here – at one point donkeys show up; are they Democrats? – and it’s not necessarily worth the trip. It doesn’t seem like getting lost in metaphor is the point. Is the delicate “Morning Child” part of the narrative arc or just a classic piece of fatherly adoration written in the moment? Is the closing “Eternity Is Yours,” powered by a classic folk strum, a coda to the story or just a simple reminder to stop and smell the roses?
Brookes seems more Dadaist than didactic. The internal logic doesn’t matter as much as the emotion it inspires, the feeling he’d like to elicit.
In the central “The One the Seashell Told,” we’re introduced to a crustacean with a Wilco-like, rock-and-roll strum, who offers life advice: “Hold on/ Be Strong/ Give light/ Burn bright.” And what does our protagonist do with this message? “I crushed the shell beneath my shoe/ Cuz no one else will tell me what to do/ But now that message from long ago is ringing in my ear.”
This feels an awful lot like the rebuttal of 1990s cynicism that many in Generation X are coming around to. As that slacker decade comes back around in popular culture, it’s hard not to see how spiky and mean-spirited and acerbic all those anti-mainstream defense mechanisms were, as so many didn’t allow themselves to be soft in their avoidance of being hurt.
Brookes here seems to be wondering if we couldn’t maybe notice the world’s many societal ills and seek to solve them with gentleness and kindness – something not quite so alienating as all that sturm and drang. (Brookes and Bait Bag would certainly be quite the double bill: Good cop, bad cop.)
In contrast to the bombast, it is a repudiation of our political moment and the always-on lifestyle. “The Greathart” asks us to slow down, listen, think and be light. What will you answer?
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Mira Sthira, “Weird Girl” — Inspired by the underground hit show “Pen15,” this is ’90s electronica you can dance to all night; there’s even a spoken-word bridge you can rap along to. A team up with Georgian/Armenian Mikheil Rusishvili, Sthira here celebrates the strange.
• Love By Numb3rs, “Earth Needs a Moon” — This one’s a slow burn, with Dan Connor setting the stage with a smoldering opening verse before Anna Lombard comes in like a house afire. This is perfect for these swampy evenings: “Oh, you need me. You know that you do. I need you, too.”
• Conor Garvey, “The Man I Want to Be” — The first single off the new full-length “Another End of Year,” Garvey is at his precise best, each note in its place and all the couplets so well executed. At times, like a young James Taylor.
• Lords of Salem, “Lords of Salem” — The newest from rapper Armz, who teams here with producer Micodin, this is golden age hip-hop mixed with a love for low-budget horror movies. It’s like “Incorporated Rhyme Schemes” from Rhyme Inc. as directed by Sam Raimi.
• Luna Colt, “Sad Songs and Bad Poetry” — A five-song debut EP from the singer-songwriter, produced by Portland long-timer Dan Capaldi. Colt’s vocals are crystal clear, the percussion is often interesting, and you never know when a guitar solo might be around the corner.
— Sam Pfeifle