Written by: Dave Cantrell
Soft, mid-70’s-inspired singer-songwriter rock doesn’t, on the face of it, sound so appealing, and in fact it does require in many camps the dropping of a lot of long-held guards to ‘get’ LAKE. Though not as intricate in its pop delicacy, the music of this sleepy-villaged quartet from Washington state is similar to Camera Obscura’s insofar as the quietly tortuous path needed for some of us to reach appreciation. Overcoming the appearance of twee is never easy, and whereas it’s tempting – and certainly in many respects defensible – to conflate the efforts of, say, Belle & Sebastian with that of LAKE by filing them both under that 4-letter ‘T’ word with the only caveat being that their individual band tastes are rooted in distinct terroir, the fact our fey Glaswegian friends prefer the sunnier – if still emotionally complicated – gleaming naiveté of the cinematic 60’s to the softcore – if still emotionally complicated – romanticism of the US-based MOR movement a decade later is what truly marks the difference. That said, the true truth, tangled up as always in the devilish details, is revealed to be a bit more complex than that essentially facile breakdown allows.
Their eighth full-length in twelve years, husband/wife duo Elijah Moore and Ashley Eriksson, with long-time co-conspirators Andrew Dorsett and Mark Morisson (with a handful of crucial contributors coming from Phil Elverum, Paul Benson, Karl Blau and others) have crafted in the aptly-named Forever or Never a hit LP from 1974 recorded under stalwart indie circumstances in 2016 and released in 2017, with all the timewarp mindfuckery that implies. Wading into the slipstream by utilizing the quality that most centrally bridges the two eras – let’s call it an exquisitely ambitious mellow-tude – their sound indeed employs many markers of that earlier time period but has no choice but to plug them into a modern sonic palette. Hence we get the bathing warm tones of a Brian Auger Hammond B-3, shadows of Supertramped synth, arrangements with a 10 CC-level artiness and a thousand more shining exemplars besides, all cosseted in a glowing, easy-going fidelity that, distilled down to its most basic iteration, amounts to prime Brian Wilson with a 50-years-later software upgrade. LAKE’s sound has that casually pristine mastery to it, and in fact it might be presumed that the troupe’s aim isn’t to merely plumb the bottomless depths of influence embodied in the singular genius of Mr Wilson but to incorporate as well all those that over the next decade used the Beach Boy maestro as a touchstone, which in terms of 1970’s West Coast pop and its derivations no matter the location, was, of course, everyone.
And while the danger inherent in opting for an intensely silken sound dynamic like this is having it amount to a kind of advanced, fussed-over muzak, the twelve tracks on Forever or Never prove that when executed with the finessed, nuanced, and ultimately complex naturalism, the sum becomes far more than its constituent parts. Mellow, in fact, has seldom been this riveting. Background music? Nah, we say it’s much closer to being Bachground music. √√√ [Forever or Never available here]
What is it about music and its ruinously esctatic allure? Here it’s seduced countless millions of us into its pounding orbit and yet the fundamental essence of its power over us is seldom questioned. It just ‘is,’ it’s just…’there.’ Not for nothing has the word ‘airs’ forever connoted with music (and not infrequently, of course, with musicians themselves but for entirely different reasons). An always ephemeral pursuit, as chimerical as a rainbow’s end, we still chase after it with an unexpendable fervor, our eyes wild, our hearts in somersaults. Defining the ‘why’ of that chase is almost certainly just as ephemeral, a guaranteed fool’s errand but I’m going to take a whack at it anyway. It is, after all, what I’m paid for (insert ironic winking emoji here).
At the risk of eliciting charges of new-age reductionism, my guess is infinitude, music’s promise of an ongoing timelessness cleverly woven within sinuous euphorias of melody and the persistencies of beat, that sly systolic element that keeps us grounded at the same exact moment it hurls us forward. Flooding into the Eschean architecture of our brains, music perpetually rivets us in the ever-evolving ‘next.’ Via a sound-based act of suspended animation, every measure assures us we’ll never die so long as we’re carried along on the wings of a song. Agistri, the solo effort from Heather Trost – one half of avant-folk duo A Hawk and a Hacksaw – feels animated by these very thoughts, and at the very least could be turned to as a rich illustration of them.
With light, nimble touches expanding on the beguilingly sparse schema of AH&aH, Agistri finds the artist blending into broader, often more exotic cinematic soundscapes, not surprising perhaps considering the album’s named after a Greek island. Indeed, the opening title track, after beginning abruptly as if we’ve just woken from a daydream, has a balmy Mediterranean feel to it, loping and hypnotic in a way both breezy and intense. Similarly, the gentle avant-samba of “Abiquiu” overlays its lilting Afro-Brazilian tropes atop the ambient spaciousness its Georgia O’Keefe-inspired title suggests (Abiquiu is where the painter famously settled), resulting in an arid tropicalia while the dusky, luminous “Bloodmoon,” mellotron set to tenor sax, evokes a sort of night satori out on the vast lunar terrain that surrounds the Albuquerque-based musician, the muted vitreous light lending itself to a delicate ongoing trance.
Largely due Trost’s unerring instincts for arrangement and composition (we last heard her playing an instrumental role in shaping Swans member Thor Harris’ self-titled debut), all this evocativeness is greatly aided as well by those she chose to accompany her in Agistri‘s creation. From Neutral Milk Hotel boffin – and Hacksaw co-hort – Jeremy Barnes to mad Deerhoof professor John Dietrich, not to mention Drake Hardin and Rosie Hutchinson from cult favorites Mammal Eggs, the balance Ms Trost was likely seeking between the airy, inscrutable mystique of pure inspiration and a solid footing in well-grounded, earthbound pop structures finds deft purchase, nowhere better illustrated perhaps than on her cover of “Me and My Arrow” as it tiptoes, with an even more teetering elegance that Nilsson’s original, on the tightrope separating slyly arty zaniness and a dark existential children’s ditty. I am, in fact, far more perplexed by that song than I was a couple days ago as, here, it’s somehow both more disturbing and more innocent-sounding.
Add in such things as the funereal touches of organ that open “Real Me/Real You” being met with tabla-like bass tones (or bass-like tabla tones, who knows?), and the hovering lilt of Trost’s vocals, all contributing to a kind of beautifully skewed Morriconean goth and other such bewitching uncategorizables and you end up with a very mesmerizing listen indeed, and quite possibly a 34+ minute stretch of infinitude meant to answer those unanswerable questions up top. √√√½ [Agistri available here]
Ahh, the palate-cleansing delight of encountering an unabashedly unreconstructed rock record here in the often over-thought, supra-hybridized, post-truth days of 2017. Which isn’t to say there’s any lack of naunce here. No, you’ll find flagrant nuance on plum plum, as, sure, you’d expect from an assembled backing band whose various hands have helped shape a just plain sick amalgam of illustrious rock’n’roll history – Blue Öyster Cult, Captain Beefheart, Sonic Youth, Velvet Monkeys, stuff like that – it’s just that the head man they’re all here to support, Mr Kim Rancourt, is, in terms of all things rock (New York City division), a man steeped.
Landing in NYC from Royal Oak, MI in 1974, Rancourt washed dishes and met rock stars and just basically wormed his way into both the music scene and the city’s restless polyglot consciousness, in the process becoming one of Gotham’s most quintessential inhabitants, repping the soul of the place by sheer inborn hubris alone, a sort of male Patti Smith minus the Jim Morrison/Arthur Rimbaud fixations (though one might conceivably substitute Sterling Morrison and Arthur ‘Killer’ Kane in that slashed pairing). Eventually, like bacteria in a petri dish, bands formed, the best known a fertile and shambolic outfit named When People Were Shorter and Lived By the Sea, whose wondrous zany conceptual noise found a home of that label of all things possible, Shimmy Disc, three gleefully grunge-free full-lengths released between 1989 and 1993. Fast forward past no doubt many instances of at-least-near infamy, a skewed eccentric legend building itself year by year, Rancourt familiarizing himself with the underbelly, the overbelly, and likely a few sidebellies of his adopted metropolis – small wonder the man’s day job is as a storytelling city guide – and the singer’s yen for a solo album can no longer be stemmed, an urge the frequently bursting energy of this album more than confirms the wisdom of.
Drafting in master of the uncompromise, Don Fleming, to gather the needed components (good move seeing as it resulted in a band consisting of Gary Lucas, Steve Shelley, Fleming himself and titan BÖC bassist Joe Bouchard) and to produce, it’s absolutely doubtless that Rancourt could be more pleased with the finished product. Check anywhere on here, from opening salvo “Walking the Trashline” that’s no less than a David Johansen solo joint fused at the hip to “Little Johnny Jewel” who in turn has the Brylcreemed ghost of Frankie Valli hanging on to its ankles as it drags him along the titular boundary, to the Sonic Youth-crushes-the Ramones-uptown punk blast of “I Kissed Pat Place” that uncontorts itself in a 98-second fury, Lucas going off the chain, to the manic and merciless “Arkansas is Burning” that contains the sure-to-be immortal line “the Pearly Gates are burning, everybody’s fucking” – did we already mention Patti Smith? Oh yeah, that’s right – to massive centerpiece “She Got Hit” that stuffs Jim Carroll’s ‘People Who Died’ in a barrel and sets it afire before rolling it down a street in the Alphabet District circa 1976, Shelley punching out the rhythm like a turbo-charged piston on elephant steroids, and you’ll hear the ecstatically unkempt, archetypal New York animal energy freshly unleashed in all its messy precision.
A revelation written in the blood of the id, street savvy dripping from the lyrics, a backing band so mind-blowingly astute it can roam freely the savage murks of a deep and primal blues one moment (“The Thing That Is”) and haunt the hallways of a sweetly shadowed Brill Building the next in support of their singer ending the album on a note of unironic wistfulness (“Leave Your Light On”), plum plum, I’d offer, is a much-needed record in this troubled moment. Lord knows, we could all use our palates being cleansed these days. √√√½
feature photo: Trish Tritz