I’ve been listening to Josh Caress for almost a decade now, through dozens of mentions on this blog, half a dozen albums, and two Kickstarter campaigns (his own for Come On Pilgrim! and mine for the Never Give Up project). Caress’ Little Lights is the sonic culmination of the last ten years that Caress has invested in creating lush, gorgeous work.
New listeners can jump in right here at Little Lights and experience an incredible album of beautifully-arranged indie-pop/singer-songwriter work–“When I Drove Across the Country” is as moving an 11 minutes as you could hope to hear. But for those who’ve been tracking with Caress’ catalog, there’s a wealth of connections, tip-offs, and tributes to ponder. “When I Drove” is the chronological and emotional centerpiece of the record, a sweeping travelogue that calls to mind the lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure. The sonic palette is a wide-screen, romantic reading of the night sky that updates the template of the magnificent Letting Go of a Dream with crisper production and instrumentation while still creating great clouds of sound. That template is overlaid with digital blips called out of Perestroika, which lend an extra level of depth to the landscape. The central lyrical image of the travelogue is actually a domestic scene of the narrator having breakfast with his young son instead of being out on the road–shades of the family life present in The Rockford Files.
All of that comes together in one deeply affecting 11-minute opus that successfully pushes the bounds of what Caress is capable of. The arrangement is complex over the life of the song, building and fading out to emphasize elements: the central moment is delivered by just an acoustic guitar and Caress’ reverb-laden voice, before the song slowly grows back to a pivotal lyrical conclusion and long instrumental outro. The guitars, vocals, strings, synths, and piano that swirl their way through this tune are all played with a sophisticated, fine-tuned hand–the result is nothing less than stunning. There are songs before and after “When I Drove Across the Country,” but they all point to and lead away from this tune. “To Be Strong” is more overtly dramatic, while the title track is potentially more tightly arranged with the same instruments. But neither of those have such a strong synergy of lyrics, melodies, and arrangement. It’s a tour de force, especially if you’ve unwittingly watched it coming for a decade.
The only tune that gives “When I Drove Across the Country” a run for its money is its follow-up track (and polar opposite) “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are).” Caress has never been afraid of using plain language for big emotions–where he delves deep into wordplay and scene-painting in “When I Drove,” he prefers to lay it out plain in this one: “I know it’s real / and I know it hurts / I know the suffering / I know what it’s worth.” The fact that the word “worth” connects with the word “cost” that appears in a critical soul-searching moment of “When I Drove” makes it even better. If you need some catharsis, Caress has some for you with this tune.
And not just lyrically, either–“Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are)” is a triumphant, jubilant indie-rock tune that makes me think of Bruce Springsteen leading The Arcade Fire (and recalls the full band sound of Perestroika). Starting with thumping toms and a great electric guitar line, the song bursts into snare rolls and synth licks, great ideas just stacked on top of great ideas. It’s a testament to a decade of songwriting that this doesn’t descend into chaos. Instead, it ratchets up to a hair-raising, spine-tingling moment when Caress howls out “Come up to the mountain! / Would you offer me the world?” over an all-out tempest. It’s the sort of thing that I didn’t know I wanted until I heard it, and then I couldn’t get enough. It’s the sort of thing I want to start getting hyperbolic about.
After the one-two punch of “When I Drove Across the Country” and “Feelings of Loss and Rejection (Are Not What You Think They Are),” the rest of album keeps the quality high. “Interlude (Across the Whole Desert Sky)” is particularly notable for introducing some weird arpeggiator effects that keep a mysterious edge to the album. “I Won’t Get This Low Again” is a highway rock song with some serious ’80s vibes going on. The intro and outro (a thing I deeply love from Letting Go of a Dream) set the scene beautifully. It’s just an incredible album.
Little Lights is the type of album we don’t get that often anymore: the album that is designed to be heard all in one sitting and (essentially) all as one song. There are almost no gaps in sound–this is a “through-composed” record, where each song blends into the next. As a result, it’s thoroughly cohesive musically and lyrically. (The lyrics seem to be a long goodbye to “all that” and a hello to a new life.) When we critics say something is a statement, we often mean that the effort expended is extraordinary and that the results are a calling card. Little Lights is a statement of a different type: it actually has something to say, musically and lyrically. It’s a rare treat to hear an artist on top of their game: check out Little Lights to get the experience. —Stephen Carradini
Most of the things I choose to review at Independent Clauses are good, even if I don’t explicitly say the words “good” or “excellent” in the review. I try to reserve the words of high praise for works that truly go above and beyond the bounds that a genre has set for an artist. Come On Pilgrim‘s self-titled record clears the folk/indie bar by a long way.
Come On Pilgrim! is the sort of album that I and many others have cultivated a taste for over the past ten years. The folk-inspired acoustic songwriting, interesting arrangements, passionate performances, thoughtful lyrics and memorable melodies all come together to make something more than the sum of its parts. The album is also more than the sum of its predecessors. While the loudest moments are a continuation of the anthemic bent that lead songwriter Josh Caress struck on his last solo release Perestroika, Come On Pilgrim! is the work of a whole cast of musicians who push the best aspects of Caress’ previous LPs to new heights.
“Regenerator” elegantly displays Caress’ progression as a songwriter. The song starts off with a droning organ, reminiscent of the drone that marks the beautiful Letting Go of a Dream. It grows through a long, flowing, emotive section (The Rockford Files) before exploding into a howling finale that excellently incorporates some of the darker indie rock that characterized the back half of Perestroika. The result is a distinctive sound that Josh Caress has been working towards for years: beautiful, relatable, passionate, haunting.
But it’s not all Caress; as previously noted, there’s a whole band here that makes the sound. The keyboards, pedal steel and violin permeate every tune as fundamental elements. An acoustic version of “The Ashes and the Springtime (That Wild Feeling)” could be an outtake from the sparse, finger-picked Goes on an Adventure, but it is enhanced from the get-go with atmospheric pedal steel contributions. Piano carries the chorus; the violin brings in the motif that I can’t escape from this album. Caress later doubles the motif with his voice, but not before female vocals introduce the haunting lyrics: “Don’t you want that wild feeling?”
“The True New Fire” knows the wild feeling. The song takes its time to build into a soaring, wordless vocal line over rumbling toms, unfolding during five minutes. The unhurried songwriting allows each of the instrumental contributions to breathe. The results are breathtaking, like a city dweller seeing the stars in Kansas at midnight for the first time.
While those songs are impressive, the “best” tag goes to the 7 minutes and 40 seconds of “The Secret Songs,” which shows off Caress’s lyrical and vocal abilities in an absolutely gorgeous song. It’s about “That night you came over with your dress torn/and I held you while you cried”; Caress has been telling stories of emotional distress since (at least) Letting Go, but in this one everything comes together perfectly. Caress’s voice creaks in places, but it does so with confidence; the lyrics and tone of his voice sync up to deliver a powerful performance. If finding your voice in writing means coming to grips with your talents and embracing them, Caress has found his lyrical and melodic voices here.
The eight songs of Come On Pilgrim! sprawl over 40+ minutes, making this a listening experience as opposed to a quick hit. The songs are carefully, lovingly arranged, and it shows in the final product. Come On Pilgrim! is easily a highlight of the year, even in a year when Mumford & Sons, The Avett Brothers and Grizzly Bear released albums. I keep coming back to it over and over because it exceeds my expectations for folk/indie in almost every way.
Perestroika, his latest and maybe last solo album for a while (nooooo!), contains the seven best songs that Josh Caress has ever written. There is a slight issue with this (there are twelve songs on the disc), but that’s still an incredibly high percentage of powerful tunes.
While his rate of success is somewhat astonishing, his formula is not that surprising: Caress has taken the best parts out of each of his last four releases and made a cohesive sound. The dramatic, sweeping, romantic pop soundscapes of Letting Go of a Dream form the core of the tunes. The inventive, complicated, Sufjan-esque instrumentation of The Rockford Files layers on top of this, bringing a depth to Perestroika‘s songs not present anywhere else in his catalog. The distorted guitar oomph that first appeared on Wild Wild Love lends an Arcade Fire-esque bombast to the tunes. The insightful lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! cap off the entire experience, lending meaning to the moving musical proceedings.
Add in the mix the unique voice of Josh Caress, and you’ve got a distinct set of songs that ranks highly in my top albums of the year.
While Caress splits the album into two sides of six songs each, I find it easier to analyze the album is in three parts: tracks 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.
Tracks 1-4 take the Jayhawks-style Alt-country of Wild Wild Love and replace the twang with an epic indie rock flair. Each tune is an anthem in their own right, and I mean that in the very best possible way. In the opener and title track, he’s yelling “Perestroika! On! My! Mind!” as suitcases thump and bells ring. “Is That What You Want?” sees the pulsing guitar line making the song into an epic instead of the vocal line. “We Will Fight” features a choir yelling/singing its way through the whole song, culminating in the chorus: “We will fight! We will fight! But not with violence! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight to strengthen the things that we’ve made!”
The final song of the suite is “You Are the Light,” which sounds like a lost Joseph Arthur song on uppers. The chorus is a glorious singalong. It is a blissful cap to this set of tunes. There are literally no parts to complain about in these songs. They are nigh on perfect.
Tracks 5-8 are a bit of a headscratcher, as Caress takes a sharp turn into Radiohead sounds. There’s some Kid A electronic work (“Deconstruct”), some Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows-style rock (“Searching at the Edge of the Real Thing”), and more. They’re not bad at all; he appropriates their sound nicely. Even his vocals, which have always been a bit wavery and high, fit well in context. They’re good tunes, but they make little sense in the context of the album, and they’re just not as good as tracks 9-12.
While it is somewhat disappointing that the middle of the album turns away from the formula he spends two-thirds of the album perfecting, there is an upside. Josh Caress has gotten better by testing out sounds before incorporating them fully into his songwriting. If considering the melancholy electronica and rock as a potential future inclusion to Caress’ sound, this becomes a less frustrating suite of songs. Imagining his current powerful sound with electronic underpinnings helps me get over the fact Perestroika would be an incredibly cohesive album if not for the middle.
The last third of the album returns to the sound that Caress established in the first third. While “Everything I Wasn’t Meant To Be” is probably the least engaging of the eight folk/indie tracks, “Pulling the Curtain Back” is one of my favorites. It grooves hard, has a great melody and includes a stylistic throwback to Letting Go of a Dream. But the cascading guitar riff doesn’t revisit the style near as much as “Prodigal Son,” which uses the heavy reverb that was the trademark of Letting Go. The very specific mood it creates (and recalls) makes the track one of my favorites.
The closer, “By the Light of the Lantern We Go,” is true to its name, as the track is a nearly eight-minute-long journey. From the glockenspiel at the beginning to the full-on roar that occurs at the end of the tune, Caress takes the listener through all of his styles, motifs and ideas in one symphonic burst. It is a fantastic way to cap off a brilliant album.
The lyrics of Perestroika are relentlessly optimistic in the first and third acts, which matches the sound neatly. They include some of the most poignant that Caress has penned, especially in “Perestroika On My Mind” and “You Are The Light.” The middle third’s melancholy and conflicted verses match the sound. Again, the middle isn’t bad; it’s just not near as good as the rest.
If this review seems disjointed, it’s because I feel that way about Perestroika. If this had been an eight-song album, or if something else had happened in the middle, I would be hailing this as the album of the year. It’s still going to be in my top ten for sure: the songs are just that good. Heck, the first four tunes alone constitute the best EP of the year. It’s my favorite JC release since Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure, certainly.
Josh Caress is edging ever closer to his masterpiece, and Perestroika is an enormous step in that direction. Do yourself a favor and get this CD.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.