[5 April 2006]
Autumn in Halifax is (mostly) David Merulla, and to get an idea of his music, it helps to know that he’s intrigued by both nature and architecture, and these two obsessions shape his music. Like the former, his songs are often unconstrained and unpredictable, changing direction and feel without warning. But like the latter, Merulla’s songs possess shape, though it’s not always apparent. This is the rewarding part of his music—a few listens just do not suffice. You have to live with the songs to discern the overall harmony and symmetry of its components, and what first sounded like random noise reveals itself to be part of a larger structure. Merulla, you might say, paints on a large canvas, and standing too close prevents you from seeing the complete picture. Once you see it, though, you can’t look away, despite that it’s often haunting, lonely, and unsettling.
Kites with Broken Strings is Autumn in Halifax’s new album; consisting of eleven tracks, it exemplifies Merulla’s eccentric brand of folk. Merulla handles vocal and guitar duties, but it would shortchange him to say he “plays” the guitar. All the conventions of guitar playing—pleasing chord progressions, catchy hooks, pyrotechnic guitar solos—are absent from Merulla’s songs. Lest you think, though, this means Merulla doesn’t know the tool of his craft, he does. His approach, however, is completely different from the classic pop model of verse/chorus/solo/chorus/fade. Instead, his guitar lines drift back and forth, moving in and out of frame, disappearing only long enough to instill a sense of unease and anxiety, returning to both please and taunt. His playing has been described as “quiet avant folk drone,” and while it’s all of these things, it might be more apt and succinct to say it’s surreal. Each song on Kites with Broken Strings sounds like a collage of fragments of dream or memories, juxtaposed against one another, the interplay equally revealing and disturbing.
Adding to the illusory feel of Autumn in Halifax’s songs is Merulla’s voice, which is always shaky, often shrill, and deliberately off-key. Yes, this doesn’t sound like the kind of music you play at a party, and it isn’t—at least, that is, not until all the obligatory guests have left and only your core group of confidantes remain. Autumn in Halifax, you see, isn’t for everyone, but only those who enjoy investing in the listening experience, those who know that rewarding art often requires something from the observer. And Merulla’s voice and songwriting do require that you pay attention, but together, they are hypnotic, each chasing after one another until they collide.
Overall, Kites with Broken Strings is disquietingly serene, much like a memory that has no tangible power in the present, but still manages to disrupt. Indeed, songs like “A Quiet Long Enough” and “In Slow Arcs” capture the transitory nature of memories, each based on loose guitar patterns that repeat themselves. “A Quiet Long Enough” is an instrumental song, and the repeating guitar patterns are complimented with backwards electric guitar notes. This gives the song a reverse momentum, as if any forward progress is always determined, and ultimately thwarted, by what came before. “In Slow Arcs” features vocals and instrumentation, but still feels transient. Drums crash into the middle of the song, accelerate the pace, but then disappear into the background. Later, they repeat the same pattern, creating a bizarre ebb and flow.
Lyrically, Merulla isn’t interested in telling stories or creating character sketches; rather, he gives the listeners images and lets them make connections. You might, for instance, think a song titled “Memphis” would tell of drunken nights down on Beale Street, but that’s too obvious. Instead, Merulla presents a series of snapshots that, while loosely related, don’t tell a coherent story: “The sound of winter… I came to… Memphis… we left it in the sea.” Likewise, in “Water + Wire,” the listener is forced to make coherence out of fragmented thoughts: “Nothing left unless we rest / Accidents, they… they test / The gentle texture of water and wire.” Only half the words in most the songs are discernible, which somehow makes the lyrics all the more intriguing. Of course, such lyrical wordplay would be easy to dismiss as artistic pretension, but Merulla’s lyrics make perfect sense within the context of his songwriting.
Like both architecture and nature, Autumn in Halifax’s songs deal with the role of space—the space between people, the space between the past and the present, and the space between reality and illusions. Kites with Broken Strings is perfect for pondering such reflective matters, and while it offers no answers, it makes you realize that questioning is better than knowing.