by InRO Staff Music

Obscure Object | Q2 2020 Issue: Honey Harper, Built to Spill, Ghostpoet

July 27, 2020
Photo: Youtube

Honey Harper

Honey Harper isn’t yet a big name. But if you’ve had any exposure to the musician, you’ll know of his reputation as the modern torch carrier of Gram Parsons’ Cosmic American Music tradition. Born William Fussell, the singer was the son of an Elvis impersonator, and it’s easy to see how early exposure to such playful camp would lead the eccentric balladeer to the glam pageantry of his Honey Harper persona — he doesn’t reach for the costumed flamboyance of a Bowie or Lady Gaga, but his bedazzled cowboy hats and cheap-chic dude-ranch garb make him more of a genre-specific Bradford Cox. His musical evolution also tracks: both the shoegaze, neo-psychedelic tenor of his first band Mood Rings and the dreamy, synth-heavy pop of his one-off EP under the moniker Promise Keeper are integral to the compositions on Starmaker, the debut LP under his current name and a work of reimagined country music. 

But while the ostentation of Harper’s appearance and his relatively speedy progression through different sonic palates may engender a cynical skepticism, there is in fact a deep respect for the genre across Starmaker. The core elements are here: swirling pedal steel-driven structures; frequent acoustic guitar softening the edges; a heavy but selectively employed twang (Harper hails from the deep south of Georgia); pronounced bass-tenor voice breaks; puckish percussives that kick up in his choruses. His country instincts are most reminiscent of Keith Whitley’s delicate, earnest emotionalism and patient songwriting rhythms, but he underscores all of this with the ebb and flow of ethereal harmonies, swelling orchestral strings, and electronic intrusions, imbuing his tracks with a sense of something otherworldly where the genre typically invokes a rooted sturdiness. 

Album-opener “Green Shadows” immediately makes clear Harper’s sonic intentions: quavering, gauzy synths usher in an alien voice, autotuned to an indiscernible warble, before the tinkling of computerized harps transitions into acoustic plucking and the vocals clarify from an angelic haze into the harsh twang and impressive dexterity of Harper’s guiding timbres. His voice fluidly moves through octaves, fullest at a deep baritone but easily climbing to a scratchy, raw falsetto, and his arrangements are lushly arranged, building on the traditionally spartan structural core of country and western, and whorling out into something less definable. The songwriter’s lyrical tendencies similarly skew toward abstraction: he retains the storytelling mode that finds most purchase in country music, but tends to elongate emotion, opting for impression over expression. This affective touch is Stargazer’s most reliable strength and frequently results in surprising melancholic crescendo, no more so than on album standout “Something Relative,” Harper’s raw falsetto bracing his broken plea: “Please stay / I know all your life is gone. / Like some galaxy lost in a solar wind / just searching for something that’s relative.Luke Gorham


Built to Spill

The ethical conundrum that surrounds Daniel Johnston’s cult celebrity has been poked at plenty over the years, though for good reason. Johnston’s output was enviable — scuzzy, lo-fi cassette releases in the spirit of the then ascendant American punk scene, but crammed alongside an hour’s worth of Lennon/McCartney-indebted pop compositions. It was, and still is, an appealing and influential approach to structuring and distributing albums, though one that was likely happened upon passively by the guileless, heavily-medicated Johnston, who spent his life battling severe bipolar disorder that limited his ability to live independently. This dichotomy would color so much of Johnston’s relationship with the American indie rock scene that he accidentally helped define; his music offering a much-needed dose of sincerity that would mostly be co-opted by self-consciously cool peers. 

And so it is with good reason that one might be skeptical of a Daniel Johnston cover album dropping less than a year after Johnston’s passing, but Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston has a bit more claim to the musician’s legacy than many of the homages and celebrations of his music throughout the years. In the most literal sense, Built to Spill’s arrangements of these songs were conceived in 2017— when they served as Johnston’s live backing band — and were presumably approved by the man himself. But even without this backstory, Built to Spill is probably the band best equipped to tackle Johnston’s oeuvre, their early work guided by similar mid-century pop music sensibilities and lyrics that strive for a clear, earnest expression of tenderness and loss. Built to Spill’s focus has shifted a bit over the years (their melodies have elongated and gotten jammier), but they’re one of the few bands of their milieu who haven’t really lost a step, with the band’s songwriter and vocalist, Doug Martsch, consistently complicating and expanding the band’s approach to song construction, while maintaining a romantic perspective. 

This project presented an enticing opportunity for Built to Spill to return to a format akin to their beloved second album, There’s Nothing Wrong with Love, and while these covers bring the band as close as they have been in a long while to those songs, most of them play out as sanded-down versions of the original. Martsch undoes his knotty, rambling guitar jams fine enough, but he and his bandmates seem unchallenged by this decision, and Johnston’s songs lose their scratchy, haunted edge without the endearingly unprofessional production. So, in this way, Built to Spill Plays the Songs of Daniel Johnston ends up disappointing in an unanticipated fashion, with two complementary musical acts coming together and accidentally canceling out what exactly differentiated one from the other. M.G. Mailloux


Ghostpoet

Ghostpoet has always been a serious artist; both thematically and sonically, his work has rarely borne out much levity. It makes a sort of sense, then, that the evolution of his sound over this past decade is as profoundly instructive a reflection of the world we live in as any that an artist managed in the 2010s. Take 2011 debut Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam — a mostly-synth textured effort informed by some neo-jazz elements, with everything comfortably rooted in the glitchy house beats and half-tempo flow of trip-hop. Even here, there were hints of what was to come, from the deep-voiced, mumbly drawl to ambient sound accompanying even the most bouncy production, to the pronounced gloom of both the lyrical content and the claustrophobic music. Four albums later — each successive effort evincing a logical progression and clear refinement of sound — the artist has delivered I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep, and indeed Ghostpoet here demonstrates a distinct weariness: “Fade to black and credits roll / Find the financiers / There is nothing / Black hole.” But the power of Ghostpoet’s latest is in how he transforms spiritual exhaustion into his most clear-headed, punishing declaration.

The sonic atmosphere of I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep presents an altogether murkier, harder-to-pin-down experience — even as it still possesses the somber tone of earlier work. The rapping that cropped up on Ghostpoet’s 2010s albums, which always felt locked in battle with the electronic soundscape, is now mostly gone; instead, vocals consist largely of amorphous spoken-word, and his deep, slow bass slicks the production like oil. In fact, this hypnotic affect is the album’s defining characteristic: the hip-hop percussives and driving guitars that have slowly dissipated across Ghostpoet’s discography are now mostly dissonance and static, less part of the rhythm than intimations of noise-rock. The effect is an industrial sound, but with a sense of unease built atop that foundation, thanks to insistent distortion, tinkling piano, electronic squeaks, chirping birds, and synthetic horns. Most sense of melody comes through GP’s guttural voice, which occasionally lurches into a jarring boom-bap tempo that reinforces the record’s commitment to sonic discord.

At times, the sheer heaviness can feel downright oppressive: there is an inescapable foreboding to Ghostpoet’s lyrics, as brutal cynicism collides with righteous anger, and the haze of this R&B-shoegaze sound wants for some baroque quality to lighten things up a bit. But there is enough variance to keep the album’s sound from stagnating: on “This Train Wreck of a Life” (titled as if it should be exhibit A in an argument for Ghostpoet’s need to chill) ethereal French vocals and synthed-out water effects delicately build to a ‘second act’ of jazz bass lines that usher in Ghostpoet’s harsh sort-of croon, before swelling strings end the track on an eerie crescendo. I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep is a haunted house of an album, a mixture of earnestness and oversaturation and freak-fringe sensibilities. It’s a work of new goth musicality that is both evocative and atmospheric, rooted in a certain obviousness of mood, but tough to shake. Luke Gorham


Oranssi Pazuzu

Located somewhere near the depths of the Mariana Trench and dragged thousands of nautical miles beneath visible light exists Oranssi Pazuzu’s Mestarin kynsi, a ferocious, mystical album that could be more likened more to a tour of the River Styx than a reflection of anything resembling reality. The Finnish psych-metal outfit has been down this less-traveled road before, though their previous efforts have never quite had the acidic bite that their most recent release carries. Lead vocalist Juho “Jun-His” Vanhanen still sounds like the Baba Yaga if it chain-smoked a lifetime worth of Marlboros in the span of a few days, and the band’s galaxy-brained plunges into atmospheric space rock are as seismic as ever — their strengths, here at least, come from the interplay between disparate sonic elements that cohere into a vision of all-encompassing dread. 

The suffocation begins with “Ilmestys”: the track progressively constructs electronic textures while building rhythmic intensity with an ominous guitar riff, all right before taking the final plunge into an anxiety-induced fervor. “Uusi teknokratia” doesn’t play quite as coy, revving up with some weighty instrumentation before embracing Krautrock soundscapes (all as Jun-His screeches and bellows into the void, his words coming off like sandpaper on one’s ears); a mid-break section, with stuttering synths and a muted choir of outsider voices, interrupts only briefly. The push and pull of the track — the central dynamic that yo-yo’s listeners between ardent affected states — lumbers about as gracefully as one can expect from music this unwieldy, nearly out of control. But it’s within that space of uncertainty where Oranssi flourishes as composers of halting unease, finding territory to corral the seemingly fractious features of the divergent contemporary metal scene into a nightmarish symphony of pure perturbation.  Paul Attard


Jim O’Rourke

In a recent interview, Jim O’Rourke called his latest work, Shutting Down Here, the “most meaningful” album of his career. “It’s almost 100% exactly what I wanted,” he told Tone Glow’s Joshua Minsoo-Kim. “It’s the closest that I’ve gotten.” It’s a statement that carries some real weight for fans, especially given that his thirty-year career has produced well over 100 albums, many of them beloved. Shutting Down Here is the inaugural release in the Portraits GRM Series, a collection of works commissioned by experimental label Editions MEGO and storied avant-garde institution INA GRM. O’Rourke’s 35-minute piece is at times a mystifying work, but it remains deeply enthralling across its entire runtime, its richness of detail rewarding focused listening. Here his acute sense of dynamics is at the fore, gradual swells and sudden flares giving shape to a patchwork of sounds. Synthetic textures, field recordings, and acoustic 

instruments (courtesy of distinguished players Eiko Ishibashi, Atsuko Hatano, and Elvind Lonning) are balanced against one another, the disparate blend of digital, analog, and natural sounds often inducing a disorienting effect. Largely resisting melody, O’Rourke crafts a haunting atmosphere that doesn’t always register as musical in the traditional sense, but this only makes the album’s rare melodic moments more special –– most memorably, around the ten-minute mark, when delicate, swelling strings threaten to burst out from beneath a layer of synth noise, only to be overtaken again by dissonance. O’Rourke considers Shutting Down Here part of a lineage that begins with his 1995 record Terminal Pharmacy, and indeed it feels like something of a culmination of his electroacoustic work, a clear advancement of the ideas he has been working with for the last few decades. It’s also one of his richest sonic achievements to date. Brendan Nagle


Mall Grab

Mark Newlands wants to punch you in the face — “you” being a sort of nebulous label for anyone who don’t take DJs seriously, who doesn’t think someone who twiddles away on a computer has to do such things as” warm-up” before a gig. We hear him repeat this desire several times on the closing track from Mall Grab’s Don’t Keep The Fire Burning, a brief collection of four previously unreleased “mg bits.” The EP comes packaged as a charity release, an effort to fundraise for the New South Wales Rural Fire Service during the intense wave of bushfires that spread across Australia earlier in the year; such a genesis might usually suggest something of a low-effort work, with the dual goals of delivering hardcore fans a little more material while also generating good PR in the process. 

But much like Newland’s threats of violence, his bid at generosity comes from a place of supreme artistic confidence; what he has delivered with Don’t Keep the Fire Burning is high-energy house to thoughtfully consider, crafted by a technician working at the height of his powers. “Positive Energy Forever” (an ironic sentiment, considering the phrase “fuck Scott Morrison” can be found on the project’s SoundCloud page) begins with a haunting, repeated sample loop that serves as the emotive foundation for Jordon Alexander’s 8-minute-long lo-fi techno odyssey, one that swells and meanders between sessions of high-frequency bass and spacey synthesizers. “Disconnect” kicks off with a series of infectious hi-hats before getting down brass tacks, proceeding with a heavy electro-influenced progression; “This Is A” immediately follows, featuring a more propulsive tempo and grimier break section that indulges its pronounced punk spirit. And when things come to their climatic end with “Sheer Fuck-Offness” — the type of mad-dash, dynamically-built endorphin rush that’s constructed with the clear intention of being blasted at some warehouse at 3 AM — it feels as if the agitated Bloody Fist Records founder’s vision and voice have fully clarified. Paul Attard

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