Published on July 31st, 2013 | by Jessica Mickey and Ballard Lesemann0
Reviews: New Releases from Company, A Fragile Tomorrow
There’s a hazy sadness lurking through much of Company’s Bird Skulls (due Aug. 6 on the Brooklyn-based Exit Stencil label). For singer, songwriter, and guitarist Brian Hannon, the new four-song collection deals with the passing of friends and family, the spiritual idea of afterlife, and the balance between pain and joy in the aftermath of a crisis. Compared to the wholehearted indie-rock sound of Company’s previous disc Dear America, Bird Skulls works from a very different winning formula.
Presented in four or five “movements,” Bird Skulls’ lead song “Bodies” features the most complex arrangement of the four track, starting with mysterious, pulsating noises and bleeps and simple piano chords in the intro, easing slowly into the delicate waltz rhythm and cymbal washes of a secondary intro. Everything but a plucked acoustic guitar and Hannon’s quivering voice drops from the first verse before another full-band crescendo builds up. The sound swells and disintegrates once again before the final verse. The dynamic delivery is quite effective.
“Curse” picks up the pace slightly, propelled by a syncopated thump and a trashy snare beat. Musty, spare, and slow moving, it’s a minor-key number drenched in echo and reverb. Sounding like he’s singing from the far end of a dusty hallway, Hannon mentions wolves howling at the full moon and other frightening scenes as he sings about various vexations.
With little more than an acoustic guitar and a bit droning static scratching along at low volume, Hannon croons of ruined hearts, sad prayers, and deaf ears on the morose ballad “Green Village.” Listening to the intro and opening verse of the hymn-like closing track “Mt. Pisgah,” it’s hard not to compare some of the chiming tones of Hannon’s guitar to those of recent Band of Horses recordings, but then again, as BOH frontman Ben Bridwell is such a close friend, colleague, and tour mate, some sonic rub-off is probably inevitable.
However, the carefully mixed instrumentation and accompaniment helps set Bird Skulls apart from previous Company releases — from the unusually affected snare and bass drum sounds to the hidden synths and haunting echoes.
With strong quiet/loud moments, “Mt. Pisgah” is a beautiful and powerful way to close such a dark and moody set. There might some veiled reference to the biblical mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land for the first time, but the title and lyrics likely connect to the Blue Ridge spot near Asheville, N.C. where Hannon and company “will climb atop the mountain, but we will not share the view.”
Since forming Company as “Co.” (and even “Ko” before that), Hannon has overseen a continual rotation of backing musicians and studio collaborators, partly out unexpected turns of events and somewhat out of his own quest to explore and experiment. On Bird Skulls, producer Wolfgang Zimmerman (of Brave Baby) provides extra percussion. Keyboardist Dan McCurry (of local band Run Dan Run and Charleston indie label Hearts & Plugs), multi-instrumentalist Joel Hamilton (of Mechanical River, Boring Portals), and guitarist Mackie Boles (of the Royal Tinfoil, Double Trash) contribute as well.
The production quality reflects and relates well with the superior studio accomplishments coming out of Zimmerman’s studio, the Space, and some of McCurry’s Hearts & Plugs/Apartment A work, such as the Elim Bolt, Brave Baby, and Run Dan Run from the last two years.
The current Company lineup is something of a Lowcountry indie supergroup comprised of drummer Shawn Krauss (of the Specs), bassist Brett Nash (of Boring Portals, Southern Femisphere, the Specs, Sans Jose), and guitarist Wil Yorke (of Sleepy-Eye Giant). Recent performances indicated that the quintet is more than capable of handling the hooks, melodies, slow turns, and dark-pop twists from Hannon’s repertoire. —T. Ballard Lesemann
Company performs in Columbia on Fri. Aug. 2 at the Arts & Draughts event presented by the Columbia Museum of Art. They’ll be at the Tin Roof on Sat. Aug. 24 as well. Visit exitstencil.org/company.php for more.
A Fragile Tomorrow
Be Nice Be Careful
Confession time: I’m a big Mitch Easter fan. As the mix master behind R.E.M.’s jangly power-pop definitive ’80s piece-of-art album Murmur, he showed big-money studio producers how to keep the heart and soul of a band audible with slick DIY methodology driven by intuition. As one half of the production team (along with the equally skilled self-described “sonic instigator” Ted Comerford) behind A Fragile Tomorrow’s latest album Be Nice Be Careful, his touches are evident all over the place, a welcomed addition to AFT’s polished and practically perfect presentation.
The album starts with the bouncy “Don’t Need Saving,” a song that easily could appear on an Elvis Costello or Marshall Crenshaw EP. Featuring smooth vocals, simple harmonies, tasteful tambourine, and an unexpected synth-tinged break, it’s a great way to kick off the album; a heads up of what’s to come. It’s extremely polished — almost too much so. “Crooked Smiles and Greedy Hands,” begins reverby, veering into Beach Boys meets ‘90s pop-rock background harmonies.
Interesting hints of percussion peek around the corner here and there, adding to the dynamic layers. “Loyalty Lies” features warm synthesized strings, leading into the crisp sounds of “Blank Paper,” lamenting the struggles of writer’s block in relation to personal relationships. “Longtime to be Happy” drives home the fact that the dream of the ‘90s is still alive in the music of A Fragile Tomorrow, exhibiting hints of a more mature Gin Blossoms, where as “Intentions” gets downright twangy and jammy with country-tinged, laid-back vocals.
“All My Friends Are Gone” is smooth and groovy with simple lyrics that don’t try to be overtly clever. “Kernersville,” an homage to the N.C. home of Easter’s studio, picks up the pace again, rocking with a Beatles-esque guitar riff and featuring vocals from Vicki and Debbi Peterson of the Bangles, producer Comerford, and Susan Cowsill of, yes, those Cowsills.
“Mess You Made” features a killer bass line taking the lead toward a smooth breakdown, and “Count on Both Hands” is complimented by lovely lap steel accents. Two sentimentally bittersweet tracks follow with the beautiful “My Home” (which touches on the loss of the Kelly brothers’ sibling Paul) and “Three More Hours,” before “Dropout Reunion” kicks it up with a junky-in-a-good-way electric guitar solo. The LP wraps everything up neatly with the reassuring lullaby of “Daylight,” a nice bookend to the themes of heartbreak and confusion.
It feels like the Easter and AFT rubbed off on each other, delivering a melodic and emotional album void of passivity. The relatively young men of A Fragile Tomorrow — Sean Kelly, Dominic Kelly, Brendan Kelly, and Shaun Rhoades — are growing up. Their skills, sounds, and lyrics seem more sophisticated and smooth as compared to their work on the Danielle Howle-produced album Beautiful Noise from 2008. But their strongest tracks shine when they don’t worry so much about being perfect. Unexpected beauty pushes through when musicians trust the crack in the veneer rather than patch it up. That being said, Be Nice Be Careful stands proudly on its own as an accessible, well-balanced, brilliantly cohesive collection. —Jessica Mickey
A Fragile Tomorrow performs at the Sparrow in North Charleston on Fri. Sept. 6. Visit afragiletomorrow.com for more.
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