The “Rat King” opens Torn-to-Pieces-Hood with an allusion to T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story The Nutcracker, and The Mouse King is a heady place to start. Adam Lepkowski on bass guitar and synthesizer along with Shamus Hackett on percussion start the ballet with Pat Phelan’s guitar and vocals. Musically, a gritty sense of isolation creates a sense of separation, paralleling the lyrics. We know the story of isolation, especially in 2020. However, this Rat King’s story is different.
“Grown Giant” is stylistically softer, more like The Decemberists. “Annan Water” leaves the story of the Rat King and sets the stage for a real connection to an artist. We all have that first moment when we realize that there’s no one putting together the pieces of our lives for us anymore. Phelan stitches that concept together with stunning imagery together. This track also displays a sense of disconnection, like “Rat King”. The genius of “Sweater” is easy to settle into: it’s authentic, simple, emotional, and sexy, stripped to only Phelan with Sean Egan on bass and Lepkowski on percussion. It captures an essence of innocence longing for more passion.
Much of this album’s joy is the result of the raw authenticity Lepkowski sought in the production process. “Sentimental Custer” starts its intricate tango with a bit of that, featuring Lepkowski on synthesizer and guitar along with Chris Flynn on percussion help. Phelan crafts a dance of forgiveness, framed in one of history’s greatest ego-driven defeats. Wandering toward the end of the record, the ominous “Glow” feels contextually supported with disconnected mixing techniques separating layers of sound. Joe Palamara joins the record on bass guitar along with Chris Carr on percussion and backing vocals. A disconnect breathes here between the lyrics and Phelan’s vocal. Possibly the most emotive of the entire record, this song resonates deeply.
“Ships in the Digital Night” is punctuated with new instrumentation. Glockenspiel and synthesizer are perfectly weird production choices, solidifying Lepkowski’s work as a smart producer. Their sonic qualities speak to the glaring commentary of our digital world, exponentially augmented since this song’s pre-COVID birth. (Recorded in Sparta, New Jersey and produced by Adam Lepkowski during a period between 2017 and 2018, Phelan’s sophomore tunes land in a drastically different world than their creation.) It’s gritty, raw, and haunting perfection. I can see a music video in my mind, and that’s scary.
Ending the journey of Torn-to-Pieces-Hood is “The Time of Fast Food.” Clean and quick, this cut is reminiscent of Jakob Dylan in The Wallflowers’ song “One Headlight,” hoping for better. At the end of this story of The Rat King and The Nutcracker, the new star of the ballet is certainly singer-songwriter Pat Phelan. —Lisa Whealy