Chaperone Picks’ Disappearing Better is a true-blue lo-fi album recorded four-track to cassette. Mr. Picks (the artist’s preferred moniker) doesn’t just maintain the recording aesthetic of the late ’80s and early ’90s–his successfully songs carry the torch for the songwriting style touted by The Mountain Goats, Sentridoh, and The Microphones.
Disappearing Better would probably be called an indie-pop record these days, or maybe a singer/songwriter record, but it’s best understood as a lo-fi record. These are sort-of pop songs, written quickly (but not sloppily) with an intentionally small amount of instrumental layers and preserved almost as soon as they were made. This type of songwriting is a specific, almost self-contained universe that contains masterpieces for those willing to make the trek. (All Hail West Texas by the Mountain Goats is the apex of this style for me; it contains two or three of my favorite songs of all time, but was written/recorded in a manner of weeks.)
Chaperone Picks nails the ethos here, producing some great songs along the way. “Calling You Out On Me” features lo-fi’s almost-trademark heavy acoustic guitar strum and an absurdly hummable vocal melody. Follow-up “And Let Live” includes drums to create a punchier vibe, but the core elements of acoustic guitar, great vocal melodies, and Mr. Picks’ front-and-center vocals remain. “Mouth to Mouth” tempers some of the chunky strum with high-mixed lead acoustic lines and charming tambourine, creating a quieter version of the Picks sound that retains all of the interest of the aforementioned songs.
Part of the intrigue of lo-fi is a function of its quickly-created premise: the songs are all (generally) mined from one vein. Instead of writing a bunch of songs over a long period of time that may have wide variations in style and content, a true lo-fi album is a snapshot of a moment in time. Disappearing Better has a clearly identifiable flavor, from the melancholy opener “I Suppose” to the frustration-outlet “And Let Live” to the speak/sing vocal performance of closer “True Lives.” This is a autumnal record, one that isn’t strongly minor key or strongly major key. There are some songs that sound melancholy but seem to have generally positive lyrics (“True Lives”) and vice versa. If you’re into seasonal listening, this may help you go from fall to winter in your listening regimen.
Disappearing Better is a record that gets better with time: the more I learn the subtle contours of the songs, the more the record endears itself to me. That’s another hallmark of lo-fi that Chaperone Picks doesn’t disappoint on. If you’re looking for some strong acoustic lo-fi work, look no further than Disappearing Better. You’ll be humming along soon.
1. “Papernote” – Tigertown. I had the same reaction to this song as I did the first time I heard The Naked and Famous: “whoa, now that is an electro-pop song.” Big, giddy, skittering all over the place; be still my heart.
2. “The World Is a Gumball” – Heavy Heart. Heavy Heart’s song-a-month project continues with a mid-tempo rock piece that blurs the boundaries between ’90s alt-rock and early ’00s female-fronted emo by dint of some shoegaze-y guitar textures. Hazy, dreamy, and yet oddly propulsive (thanks to the bass).
3. “Basic Instructions” – Gleneagle. Unhinged, permanently-threatening-to-come-apart alt-country is attractive because it always barely manages to stay together: here the vocals threaten to dissolve into an uncoordinated rage, only restrained by the carefully coordinated guitar rock going on behind it. The cathartic/jubilant conclusion is all you hope it will be from the first time you hear Bryden Scott’s vocals.
4. “Only at Night” – Candysound. Somehow strikes a warm, comforting balance between jaunty and subdued, like Bloc Party chilling way out or Vampire Weekend on downers.
5. “Revolution (feat. First Aid Kit)” – Van William. Everything that First Aid Kit lends their voices to immediately becomes 4 times better than it was before. This was a good folk-pop song with charming trumpet before their vocals come in; after their vocals, it’s a great song. Straight up.
6. “Life 101” – Sonoride. Shuffle-snare percussion, walking bass, rolling guitar and wistful vocals come together into an excellent folk tune.
7. “All We Do” – Daniel Trakell. The soaring vocal melody in the chorus of this acoustic-pop song just takes off and pushes this song to a whole new level.
8. “That’s All You Get” – Chaperone Picks. Raw, enthusiastic, lo-fi singer/songwriter with some country overtones. For those days when it seems like no one doesn’t use autotune and maxxed out production values, Chaperone Picks is there for you. Realness.
9. “Runaways” – Gabriel Wolfchild and the Northern Light. I feel an expansiveness in my soul when I listen to this song, not unlike that which I feel during Gregory Alan Isakov’s “The Stable Song.”
10. “Agata” – Sam and the Black Seas. This acoustic tune has serious gravitas and yet remains a floating world of a song, barely over two minutes.
11. “Alstroemeria” – TOLEDO. A dignified, composed, carefully constructed piece of acoustic music that shows off the male vocal tone and the ability to make all the pieces fit together intricately.
12. “I Found a Home” – Brooklyn Doran. The pristine guitar playing features an intriguing bass line. The guitar fits between Doran’s Adele-esque vocals and chord-heavy piano playing, creating a strong pop song.
13. “When We Were Young” – Anna Atkinson. Dramatic high alto/low soprano vocals and fiddle duet for the first chunk of this tune, evoking solitary, yearning mountain folk songs. The introduction of guitar somehow amplifies those feelings instead of diminishing them.
1. “Who Are You” – The March Divide. Jared Putnam turns to formal popcraft, creating a splendid little perky acoustic pop tune. Somewhere between “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” and a Shins song, this tune is a lovely surprise.
2. “I’ll Be True” – Crockett Hall. Standing in front of a big Stax Records sign, a raw, rough-throated reverie with soulful, mournful horns in the background.
3. “Low Hymnal” – Told Slant. The dark flipside of twee shows its sleepy, anxious head here. This song is somehow both tiny and expansive in how it sounds.
4. “Already Gone” – Travis Smith. Like a less hyperactive version of Dan Mangan, Smith has a bouncy, chipper flair to his troubadour folk.
5. “Vanishing Shores” – Tom West. Here’s a big, Australian indie-folk singalong with gentle, marimba-esque arpeggiator below it. Hard for me to dislike anything with that description.
6. “C’Mon and Sing” – Chaperone Picks. While we’re on the topic of singalongs, here’s a song about singing along. A rootsy, bass-laden guitar strum creates the structure and most of the arrangement for this not-quite-folk-punk tune, and the results are smile-inducing and foot-tapping.
7. “Burning Bridges” – 2/3 Goat. Led by a clear, bright, strong female vocal, this alt-country tune has a killer chorus that stuck in my mind.
8. “Francesca” – Thurdy. Sometimes you need a gentle, kind ukulele instrumental in your life.
9. “Windfall” – Kalispell. The majestic folk spaciousness of Bon Iver paired with striking, disarming, immediate tenor vocals creates a unique, deeply enjoyable atmosphere. The arranging and recording engineering here are truly remarkable.
10. “Curse the Road” – Austin Miller. The easygoing shuffle of a old-school country song meets careworn vocals to create a tune reminiscent of Rocky Votolato’s early work.
11. “Rattlesnake” – Fog Lake. An appropriate band name to fit this hazy, swaying tune. There’s some angular guitar and some abstract sounds thrown in for good measure, but other than that this is grade-A strength walking-speed bedroom pop.
12. “Everything” – Cavalry. First it made me feel like the first rays of dawn coming over the horizon, then like a gem opening up to the light for the first time, then the great expanses of wide canyons and huge mountains. It’s indie-rock that uses the same instruments you would expect, but their sense of wonder and careful restraint make this an incredible track.
13. “Ruelle (feat. Olivia Dixon)” – Trevor Ransom. Starts off in beautiful piano-based minimalism, grows to dramatic post-rock grandeur, then drops off to develop again.
Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.