The polish, space and patience in Austin Stahl‘s The Things You Carry makes it abundantly obvious that this is not his first go-round. As band-leader of Baltimore indie-poppers Private Eleanor, he’s put out albums with varying numbers of participants for a good while now. These experience lend a gravity to The Things You Carry that isn’t present in many other solo debuts.
Because Stahl has been in a band for so long, he’s picked up on how to write songs with more than just a main part and some filler instruments. While acoustic guitar is still the main instrument used, these songs aren’t acoustic songs with some stuff added in. These are full-band arrangements of acoustic-led indie-pop songs. This may be a solo project, but his songwriting aesthetic has molded over time into something that resembles a full band with equal contributors (much more so than some bands that actually say each member is an equal contributor).
On the pensive “Before the Skies Come Down,” for example, the acoustic guitar is the base for the song, but the just song wouldn’t work without the buzzing synthesizer in the background. It’s a vital part of what makes the song, not an afterthought or neat trick.
The same goes for the next track, “Shrug.” The bass guitar plods its way through the entire piece, but the chiming guitar and plinking piano do much more than just provide atmosphere. The pieces of the song are woven together so tightly that to separate out each part becomes an exercise. If you focus on the drums primarily, the song has one feel. If you focus primarily on the keys, guitar or bass in the same manner, the song mutates a bit; it doesn’t have exactly the same feel. When listened to all together (as, obviously, was intended), the song is dense and full of surprises, but never seems overwhelming in the least.
The metaphor of “Shrug” lends itself nicely to the rest of the album. It’s dense with charming moments that are incredible even if yanked out of context. But when the album is listened to in context, it is a fully-recognized vision of a season in Stahl’s life. It feels right. Short songs bump up against long ones. No song feels rushed, no song feels dragged out. The songs exist as they should, without being forced to be one thing or another. “Stories of Us” is only 1:19, but it’s my favorite song here. “Band of Gold” is probably my second-favorite track; it’s an epic 6:48.
Austin Stahl’s The Things You Carry isn’t the type of record that spawns hits, even of the indie variety (“Dude, you don’t have that on your iPod? What’s wrong with you?!”). It is, however, an excellent album to listen to all the way through. It is a calm yet unfailingly interesting listen; it won’t rile you up, but it won’t bore you, either. This is mature songwriting; Stahl knows what he wants to say and how to say it to best effect within his songwriting style. Whether it be jangly, bumpy, folky, poppy, smooth, or however else, he does it with candor and quality. This is an undeniably outstanding record that you can download for free on his website.