Independent Clauses is somewhat of an alternate universe when it comes to music reviewing. I rarely cover the hip bands, often love things no one else does, and generally attempt to be true to what I hear. If there’s a radar to be on or under, we’re hanging out on a different screen altogether. This is more by happenstance than choice: I never set out to be contrarian. And I don’t feel like a curmudgeonly naysayer of popular music, as you’ll see tomorrow. I just have a different lens than many people. Here’s the view from that lens.
16. Elijah Wyman/Jason Rozen’s collective output: Tiny Mtns/The Seer Group/Decent Lovers. What started out as the artsy electro-pop project Tiny Mtns split into a heavily artsy electro project (The Seer Group) and a heavily artsy pop project (Decent Lovers), with the two splitting the tracks between them. Except when both kept a track and reworked it to their likings. Did I mention that this one time, one of these guys gave the other a kidney? Now you see why they get one mention.
I’ve been following Elijah Wyman’s music since 2006, when Why We Never Go Swimming and Other Short Stories enlightened me to his slightly off-kilter acoustic folk. I’ve been a huge fan ever since, going so far as to dub him “one of my favorite acoustic songwriters ever.” For a blog that’s predominantly about folk, that’s about as high as praise gets.
So when Wyman unveiled the hip-hop/indie-pop project Tiny Mtns, I was pretty confused but willing to listen. The unusual tunes did not disappoint: Wyman’s songwriting, even when applied to a different genre, retained an unique spin. Instead of going full pop on it, Wyman played around with instrumentals, chorus-less tunes, arty meanderings, and electronic noodling. The under-used autoharp was a primary instrument in the tunes, after all. He planned to keep releasing tunes in a rotating mixtape, and I was prepared to keep checking on it.
Then I was notified that Tiny Mtns was dead, and that the songs had been parceled out between two bands: Wyman’s The Decent Lovers, and collaborator Jason Rozen’s Seer Group. Wyman still sings and performs on Seer Group songs and owns one of Rozen’s kidneys, so it’s safe to say this was merely a division of labor as opposed to a breakup. The Decent Lovers is a pop band, taking the more upbeat tunes from Tiny Mtns and fleshing them out; Seer Group is an arty electronic project. They share a couple songs: “Decent Lovers” is a murky electro jam on Seer Group’s Owlpine and a speedy acoustic-based pop song on Decent Lovers’ Quit Trying, while “Year of the Flame” has Wyman on all vocals for the DL version and a female vocalist for some vocals on the SG version. You’d be forgiven for getting a little confused.
While both albums are eccentric in their own ways, Seer Group’s Owlpine is the more difficult of the two to parse. The album is built on the back of keys and synths, but not the Killers’ buzzy synths or post-rock’s pad synths. These are gritty, yet fluctuating; lithe, but not saccharine. Opener “Cold Hands” is a meandering, slow-paced tune with laconic vocals and cascading instrumental lines from those synths. It creates a pensive, uneasy mood, as if one has stepped off a spaceship onto an unknown planet of immense beauty. There’s an undercurrent of danger and fear, but on the surface it’s beautiful.
That space situation is a solid metaphor for all of Owlpine. (The name of another of his tunes, “Murky Glow,” could also describe the album well.) “Year of the Flame” has a beautiful melody, but it uses a metaphorical (or maybe literal?) hurricane as its main lyrical device. The ominous, pulsing bass of “Wounded Animal” contrasts with the dreamy keys and vocals swirling above it. Even “Local Honey,” another Tiny Mtns holdover, is far more claustrophobic and paranoiac than I remember; the dreamy, coked-out weirdness seems to be moving in slow-motion. On the whole, Owlpine is an uncommon experience; I found myself returning to its distinct and carefully crafted mood.
The Decent Lovers’ Quit Trying was much easier for me to understand and enjoy, because most of it falls into one form of indie-pop or another. Whether the strummy “Barricade the Doors,” the dance-oriented “Beautiful Houses,” the fractured keys of “Brooklyn Rules Football” or somewhere in-between (“I Don’t Wanna Be a Decent Lover,” “I’m Happy All the Time (Sad Hawaii Version)”), Wyman is singing pop songs here. To rip a Death Cab title, you can play these songs with chords. It’s just that sometimes they would be really, really weird chords.
Since several of these songs came from the autoharp-heavy Tiny Mtns project, the instrument still plays a huge role here. That gives the songs a very unusual sound and feel, which is to their advantage. “Bold as Lions” could have been a straight-forward pop-rock song, but it’s a chiming wonder instead. “Small Towns” is profoundly beachy, with ukulele-esque sound and strum augmented by a bell kit and chill group vocals. “Barricade the Doors” takes that similar strum but turns it pastoral, invoking folksters like Fleet Foxes.
Wyman’s vocals are on full display in these tunes, which is great for a EW fan like myself. I’m partial to the strummier tunes, but I’m not so biased as to note that the still-highly-electronic “Year of the Flame” (which is credited to The Decent Lovers + Seer Group) is downright powerful in his hands. It’s a fun, unusual album that rewards multiple listens. I can’t chart it on a normal ebb and flow of a pop album’s ordering, and I like that. Fans of atypical pop music should definitely apply within.
Because Seer Group’s Rozen is super-thoughtful, he’s given IC two unreleased tracks to share with you all. Their titles speak for themselves. Enjoy!