[13 February 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Multi-instrumentalist Dominic Cipolla—formerly of Louisville, Kentucky, and currently of Brooklyn—is one heck of a busy and prolific guy. Cipolla, along with bassist William Benton, is essentially the brains behind the psychedelica-meets-glam rock group known as the Phantom Family Halo, and since 2007, the band has been spitting out records at a breakneck pace. They’ve put out three long-players, one of them a double album, and last fall released a split EP with fellow Louisville scenester Bonnie “Prince” Billy. Just scant months later, the band is dropping a full-length album, When I Fall Out, which will be the first of two discs to come out this year, and, what’s more, there’s a bit of a concept behind the latest release(s). When I Fall Out is a companion piece to Hard Apple Moon, which is slated to come out later in 2012, and each album is split between being “dark” in tone and “light”. When I Fall Out is the “dark” album, having been inspired by the death of a close friend of Cipolla’s at the too-young age of 33, although it is hardly pitch black in scope. It’s a druggy piece of psychedelic music in the vein of the Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev with a scoop of Black Mountain thrown in, and then there’s some of the glitter of ‘70s pseudo-prog or glam bands such as Roxy Music or T. Rex in an additional helping of sonic squalor. It takes a few spins to really get into, but there’s some solid songcraft at work on When I Fall Out, and there’s a certain menace that underscores the record—something that anyone who picks up the album will astutely notice simply by looking at the back cover and seeing two weapons-related song titles: “White Hot Gun” and “Dirty Blade”.
While When I Fall Out is an album that is certainly brooding, the sun does poke out from time to time. “Light Year Girl” opens with a squeal of feedback peal before settling into a fuzz-guitar slinky groove that recalls something from Here Come the Warm Jets-era Brian Eno, something that eventually blossoms into almost free jazz territory as there’s actually a sax solo—making it the highlight of the record. The Eno comparison, by the way, seems incredibly apt as Cipolla was involved in a tribute show in New York where Warm Jets was performed this past January with some indie rock stalwarts either performing or in attendance, ranging from Travis Morrison of the Dismemberment Plan to Atlas Sound’s/Deerhunter’s Bradford Cox.
“You were so pure / Not of this world,” sings Cipolla in his sexyist, best Marc Bolan imitation, “Stars are shining / You are my light year girl”. Hardly something that you would say is depressive or “dark”, right? Well, it doesn’t take long for dread to infiltrate the record: the follow-up song “Above My Head” pulls the shades down with the opening line, “In my head, in my head / Hear the voices they just call and speak to me, speak to me” in a paean to schizophrenia. “You’ve got nothing to fear / Loaded gun”, Cipolla sings on “White Hot Gun” in a raw and tightly-wound manner, before Mellotrons gently creep into the glammed up track adding a sweet touch of melancholia. Then there’s “Vital Energy”, a song that recalls the grandeur of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” crossed with a Krautrock underpinning, before literally melting down at the end in a cacophony of sound, resembling a merry-go-round literally slowing down at an off-kilter speed.
If there’s anything that one could perceive as being “wrong” with When I Fall Out, it doesn’t—at only eight songs long—give the listener a lot of bang for their buck. Just shy of being a half-hour in length, When I Fall Out joins the swelling ranks of indie rock albums being released lately that are short in duration: the new Cloud Nothings release is slightly more than 30 minutes long and the latest album by Unicycle Loves You also clocks in at about a half hour. What’s more, the reoccurring musical motifs of “The Fall Out” and the similar in title and pace “The Fall Out (Suite)”, coupled with the fact that Cipolla and company are reluctant to get out of the locked spacey grooves of some of their material makes the record feel a little on the lightweight side. However, repeated listens do yield various rewards in terms of picking apart the layering of sound—When I Fall Out Is a headphones album to some degree—and songs such as “Light Year Girl”, “Lightning on Your Face” and closer “Vital Energy” are infectious and have a habit of burrowing deep inside of your mind and staying put. Perhaps it might have been wiser to release When I Fall Out and Hard Apple Moon as a double album—or one very long CD—so you could be able to contrast and compare the two, and see how they fit together as a whole.
Still, what we’re left with is engaging and indelible in and of itself, even if it falls a little on the truncated side, and When I Fall Out is a largely compelling series of interconnected songs and themes that makes you wonder: if the band is so good at being threatening without being overbearing, what will it sound like when it comes to dropping the so-called “light” album later on in the year? When I Fall Out certainly makes you ponder the answer to that currently intangible question, and based on the evidence here, waiting to see how everything unspools just might be the hardest part of the equation for listeners enrapt by the mercurial sounds of When I Fall Out.