As I’ve been listening to Nettles‘ work (and relistening; Locust Avenue is a grower), one phrase keeps impressing itself upon me: “ominous flutes.” Sometimes the adjective varies, as “violent,” “dissonant,” and “eerie” have come to mind as well. Whichever modifier you choose, it’s an odd pairing with the word “flute.” But the stark contrast of the term could be a synecdoche of the album: this is a slow, rolling, pastoral album in the vein of Songs:Ohia, but it’s also a heavily-arranged album with complex textures that border on the chaotic.
You don’t hit the flutes right away: opener “Annuals” actually has more in common with Nick Drake than Jason Molina, as the fingerpicking guitar style is much more in line with the former than the latter. Guion Pratt’s straight-forward, earnest timbre calls up the Magnolia Electric Co. singer, however. “Brando” has some choppy strum that is reminiscent of Molina; paired with the vocals, there’s a strong connection to slow-core style (even though the song is fast). And, yes, the flutes come in. They’re not as ominous as they will be, but they show up. The album unfolds: it doesn’t throw everything at you at once.
It’s “Body Inside Out” where the flutes really start to work their magic. The tune is a darker one than the first two: still pastoral in its delicate piano and roving melodic lines, but with some darkness creeping in around the corners. By the middle, the flutes, generally used for airy support, are giving me the heeby-jeebies. That tension is real. It’s the sort of thing that draws you in.
The title track most clearly takes up the slowcore motifs, spinning out a patient, pause-filled song. Again, the tension between beauty and ominousness is present throughout, drawing me in. This time it’s not flutes (they are there!), but the back-and-forth between the guitar and the silence that punctuates. By the end of the seven-minute track, the guitar, vocals, percussion and flutes all come together to create the sort of quiet roar that comes of being fully involved in a quiet piece of music.
The rest of the album follows in suit: acoustic guitar, flute, and occasional other contributing instruments deliver tunes that range from well-developed, fully-arranged pieces (“The Quarry,” “Rogue Body”) to eerie minor-key pieces (“The Knot”) to slow-burners (“Pyramid of Skulls”). Pratt’s voice is a calming guide through the landscapes he builds, and the overall results are unique and interesting. Locust Avenue is an album that requires multiple listens, but if you give it the time it asks for, it will show you treasures.
Songs:Ohia plays a critical role in my musical history, somewhat akin to the lack of respect Bob Welch gets for keeping Fleetwood Mac together until they could get around to recording awesome things.
In my transition from “Super Good Feeling” to “Get Lonely,” Songs:Ohia was one of two artists who would entice me to jump from the poppy precipice of Transatlanticism to the downtempo jeremiads of Damien Jurado and The Mountain Goats. Without the influence of those latter two bands, this blog would probably not still exist. So, indirectly, you and I both owe a debt to Jason Molina (and David J of Novi Split, who was the second guide).
The emotions that Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou conjures up in me match almost exactly the ones I felt while listening to Songs:Ohia’s “The Lioness” as a teenager. This is an incredible statement: I had chalked up this intense connection with S:A’s slow, weighty songs up to “my first time.” For a band to repeat in me that sort of emotion amid my now-steady diet of folk and singer/songwriter is stunning.
Pre-Magnolia ELectric Co. Jason Molina originally intrigued me for several reasons. I am intrigued by Joseph O’Connell (the songwriter behind EM) for the same reasons:
1. He is very talented, although the simple musicianship bears no ostentatious markers of technical skill.
2. He imbues songs with honest, weighty emotion.
3. He is unafraid to play a slow, quiet song for a very long time.
I started to feel the old longing during the second track, “Won These Wings.” A slowly thumped tom and sparse yet terse notes on an acoustic guitar create the backdrop for O’Connell’s plaintive voice; far-off background vocals and some sort of woodwind form intermittent ghostly asides. The whole thing just feels heavy; but more than that, it feels compelling. Instead of being wallpaper music, this is gripping. You know those movies where the soundtrack is so integral and vital that it should be credited as a supporting actor? The 7:25 “Won These Wings” is that sort of tune.
The length here is notable in the context of everyone else’s work, but not so much in comparison to the rest of the album. The six songs on Louder Than Thou run just over 36 minutes, meaning that one EM song averages the span of two pop songs. The shambling, uplifting “My Cousin’s King,” the shortest song, clocks in at 4:29. It could have gone longer and been totally fine: these songs sprawl, and they’re all the better for it.
That’s the lesson to be learned from “If I Were a Surfer,” which is the song that caused me to think of Songs:Ohia for the first time in years. The strum pattern isn’t complicated, the drum part isn’t difficult, and the vocal line isn’t virtuosic. But the parts come together in such a heart-rending way that none of that matters. “Let it lie where it lands / I’ll start all over again,” O’Connell sings with female harmony over a graceful, whirring organ. It’s no lyric shooting for the heart of reality, nor is it a hugely orchestrated epic moment. It is, instead, a testament to patience, dignity and craft. It is beautiful.
The skill and hard work it takes to write songs of such seemingly effortless elegance is hard to overstate. Elephant Micah‘s Louder Than Thou is not louder than much, really. But it is far more resonant than most, and that’s why I can’t stop listening to it.
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.