Written by: Dave Cantrell
ADRIAN AARDVARK – “Dying Optimistically” (Epifo Music)
Archaic but not per se bespoke, psychedelic but folk but falling-apart indie, confessional obsessional but above all wrapped in love and wonder (even if the former is plagued by a touch of worry, the latter seems to have no trouble finding itself in any and every situation), Adrian Aardvark, a 4-piece resident of Plattsburg, NY, occupy a place on Uniqueness St where they could head across the way to borrow a cup of sugar from Gary Wilson, invite their neighbor Daniel Johnston for a slice of humble pie and some herbal tea while introducing anyone that happens by to the ghost of prior resident Tiny Tim who lives now in their garage and, not surprisingly, has acquired some of our modern age’s shakier anxieties.
To call what’s coursing through my headphones ‘quirky morose pop with a side of whimsy’ may risk skirting the obvious but there I’ve gone and done it anyway. Produced by Brandon Massei of cult legends Viking Moses and released April 20th on SEM label fave Epifo Music, the astutely-titled Dying Optimistically confounds in the bestest of ways. Whether it’s the aching hopeful balladry of opener “Just Us,” songwriter Christopher Jay Stott-Rigsbee’s rubberband tenor – set precariously against wife Shannon’s shaky-sure violin and a fuzz bass (Catherine Harrison-Wurster) that had me writing down the phrase ‘dry swamp, – the bruised and stuporous honky-tonk of “Young Pharoahs and Horses,” “Little Girls”‘s chord-heavy stomp like a backwoods T. Rex, the wild, libidinous though weirdly innocent “Horny Wildebeest,” or the irreverently reverential ramshackle jazz of “Oo Ra Ra/The Sun” – that’s drummer/percussionist Daz Bird (AKA Christopher Lee Shackett) on oom-pah-pah trombone – where the title’s thinly-veiled reference is made all the more threadbare during the track’s first half by a sound suggestive of Jonathan Richman if his primary influence been Saturn’s favorite son, this is the kind of quietly disturbed record that in its skeletal grandeur evokes the spirit of Sparklehorse if Mr Linkous, past this plane, transmogrified to the great grange of guileless misfits in the sky.
It’s also a risk-taking effort that through the sheer will of not caring what anyone thinks of it is very sure of itself. You can’t be this sort of knowingly disheveled without having nerves of creative steel and at the very least Adrian Aardvark has that. Not many are willing to go out on limbs like this anymore for fear of the cracking. Understandable but this lot seem to thrive on that, making Dying Optimistically by definition something of a throwback, we suppose, but if so it’s in the very best way. Missing the spirit of Wild Man Fischer? This one’s for you. √√√¼ [Dying Optimistically available here]
SERENA JOST – “Up to the Sky” (Second Kiss)
With its sonorous depths and shadowy implications, the cello – or its reproduced tone – has long found a place in modern pop and rock music. From emphasizing the frantic loneliness of “Eleanor Rigby” to reinforcing Kurt’s desperate, double-entendre’d yearn in “Something in the Way” to the gruesome beauty it unleashes in Therapy?’s heavy cover of Hüsker Dü’s “Diane,” it’s understandable that the cello, simultaneously dulcet and goth, would be the reflexive go-to for an artist looking to more richly color the textures and contours, the inescapable pathos of human emotion. Equally understandable is how someone with as deeply a questing talent on the instrument as Serena Jost – an original member of Rasputina for those who felt their mention had been neglected in the examples up above – would seek out architectural settings with suitably grand potential. Hence her arrival at St Peter’s Church in the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City, lugging a cello born in 1910 into a space consecrated some 72 years prior to that. No stranger to hosting musicians of various disciplines (though classical unsurprisingly is dominant), the cavernous intimacy the place so famously affords pairs with empathic dynamism to the stripped-down solo tendencies of Ms Jost’s approach here – it’s nothing but cello and voice and those ecclesiastic acoustics – that one could be persuaded that the church was designed with the eerily predictive intention of helping shepherd this one piece of work into the world.
At once ethereal and laden with portent, first track “Window,” that indeed in meta fashion accepts the crucial role of throwing open a window into the inner aesthetic sanctum inside which the rest of Up to the Sky – and the artist that made it – will reside for the next 25 minutes, employs broad sawing swaths of lowing bass notes to give gravitas to the moonglow of Jost’s swaying alto. “The Cut” follows with more of a skipping staccato movement that runs counter somewhat to the trepidatious lyric – the tension is as subtly delicious on this record as you might expect – “Great Conclusions,” its cello but a plucked bassline, approaches, via its mix of bluntness and emotional impressionism, the hallowed halls of Kristin Hersh, the mournful swoops from the bow on “Happiness” (written by Nick’s mom Sally Drake and the album’s only cover), vertiginous here, sweetly laconic there, give innate emphasis to the song’s beautifully conflicted happy/sad heart, while “It’s A Delight,” the cello double-tracked like dual identities leaning against each other into a wind, Jost singing with a particularly glass-like, Lady of the Lake clarity, may well be one of 2018’s most stirringly lovely moments.
Due its size, its shape, its breadth, playing the cello – and let’s add the upright bass to this as well – would seem the closest one can come to playing an object that approximates a fellow human being and, indeed, when watching a performance by Pablo Casals – or Charles Mingus – there does seem an aspect of coaxing the essence of the soul out of one’s twin. That’s the level of locked-in intimacy that resonates throughout this recording. In tandem, there seems to be present here both a fierce confidence in what’s possible and a trembling acknowledgement of the forces that have shaped Jost’s sensibility, but however one frames it there can be no doubt that the commitment to her own muse is unwavering.
It might just be the setting in which these sessions took place and the extent to which it’s impossible to not here the room’s presence surrounding, embracing every track, but I scribbled in the margins while writing this ‘the Elizabeth Barrett Browning of avant-classical folk,’ a description too reviewer-cutesy to merit standing, perhaps, yet one I’d argue nonetheless at least alludes to the literary spirit that effortlessly permeates this album. √√√¾ [Up to the Sky available here]
EUREKA CALIFORNIA – “Roadrunners” (Happy Happy Birthday To Me)
Last we met with Eureka California, marking the release of 2016’s Versus, it was mentioned how that bugbear-named inevitability ‘maturity’ was starting to enter the picture (however cartwheeling and Jackson Pollock-y that picture still was), bearing out a mostly unwritten truism stating that a punkified ramshackle ethos will only take you so far before it begins to rattle itself out of ideas. But even that assessment, as applied to Eureka Cal, wasn’t entirely relevant since from their very earliest days the duo of Marie A Uhler and Jake Ward have made clear that, amidst their brash arsenal of fuzzed bedroom guitar chords and garage-shaking drum work (Jake and Marie, respectively), they possessed an ample supply of barbed hooks and basic pop firepower that they were never particularly shy about using. It was only that, on said third full-length a couple years ago, recorded, as this new one Roadrunners was with the Hookworms’ MJ at their Leeds-based Suburban Home Studio, a certain, shall we say, dimensionality was developing. It’s a process, we’re happy to report, that blossoms apace here on their fourth.
You can hear it in the bright churn and (ironically isolated?) ooh-ooh-ooh of otherwise scathing opener “MKUltra,” it’s there in “Perfect Grammar”‘s power pop-meets-“12xu” vibe, in how “Time After Time After Time” suggests how the Feelies might’ve sounded had they emerged during the reverberant mid-90’s grunge backlash; in the almost leisurely, psych-shaped space carved inside “Howard Hughes at the Sands,” the chippy-choppy “Gila Monster” that’s, what, an Elephant 6 excursion into the wilds of Queens circa the Ramones? Indeed, yes, something like that exactly. The greatest evidence, however, of this band’s continued ascent toward the mist-shrouded summit of pop perfection would appear to have been saved for last in the lyrical surety of “Mexican Coke” that helps create the disorienting sense that you’ve just summoned a prime era Nirvana track that’s been hijacked by Graham Smith.
High praise? Do I hear you saying ‘High praise’ in a tone the implies the unspoken follow-up question ‘You sure about that?’ If so, I hope you’ll allow me just this one case-closing Joycean riposte: Yes. I said yes. √√√¼ [Roadrunners available here]
Feature image from the amazing Trish Tritz