Though you may not have heard of him, Fred Thomas has an oeuvre that could fill up the room. He’s been compared to everybody from Stephen Merritt to Jeff Magnum to Ariel Pink in his songwriting capabilities. As the showrunner behind Saturday Looks Good to Me, he conducted a vast and magnanimous library of lo-fi indie powerpop. As an occasional member of His Name Is Alive, he saw the band move from its ethereal origins into expansive territories encompassing free jazz, country, surf, and other miscellaneous divergences. It’s fair to say the man knows his way around a good melody, but also isn’t bound by one.
It’s not surprising, then, that City Center, which was a Thomas solo project until Saturday member Ryan Howard joined the group after the debut album was recorded, is a chance for Thomas to branch out even further. Yet, the sound on City Center’s debut self-titled LP is not so much an abandonment of the Saturday Looks Good to Me aesthetic as an obfuscation of those pop-ulist sounds into something far more intimate. “The breaking is an opening”, remarks Thomas in “Young Diamond”, a song whose lyrics read like a close friend guiding you through a bad trip.
There’s a pop core to City Center’s debut, but it’s a sliver of one, blown aback by Flying Saucer Attack-level layers of reverb, countless knobs tweaking effect pedals in every which direction, and a bold retreat from rhythm, or at least conventional rhythm. This puts him distinctly in the peer group that this new brand of sunbaked, loop-based, psychedelic, circuit-bent folk that bros like Panda Bear, High Places, Fuck Buttons, and Ducktails call home.
Yet, as luminescent as City Center gets, which is to say about as much as the neon skyline of its namesake, the album is actually kind of a harrowingly lonely affair. Those reassuring voices in “Young Diamond” call from beyond a drowned world of progressive volume, which sweeps away the song’s voices as they beckon “We won’t let you starve / We won’t let you fail” and “I know Baltimore can be a scary place and so can New York / So can everywhere outside / And you feel all alone / But you’re not alone”. This loneliness is a harrowing fear for Thomas, who posted the album’s lyrics online. “When you are alone, you are a force”, states the song “You Are a Force”, but “Summer School” contends “No one hears you when you are alone”.
Like Liz Harris’s devastating cherubic coos as Grouper on last year’s Dragging a Dead Deer Up a Hill, perhaps the seminal release of Type Records, which also houses City Center, a lyric sheet is not essential to experiencing the aforementioned solicitude. Thomas’s lyrics prove too cryptic to immediately decipher or extract specific meaning from, but themes flow throughout that suggest the city and its artifices as anthropomorphic beings reinforcing this sullen loneliness. The outside world, like the music itself, is miswired. The opening tremolo of “Killer Whale” emphasizes this alienation. “The places we are are cold and slow” and the “landscape is littered with thoughtless flow”, the song says. “I can’t reach you”, Thomas mourns.
Despite his efforts at contact, the album’s tracks seem to ring out in defeat by way of the arrangements. Many tracks end with dissipation into an etheric effects and droning rubato, while others change course with little interest in finishing what they started. It’s a concept that works best as an album-length obsession than a single-serving, song-by-song chapter book. Like Grouper’s album, much of City Center‘s pleasure is in the distillation of pure feeling rather than the drama of narrative, though the occasionally acrobatic handling of effects processors scrapes by more than its share of the latter as well.
“Life Was a Problem” is a brief piece that’s like cargo being carted around, instruments eventually hitting bumps in the road. The feedback interlude of “Open/House” threatens to unwind the tape from the reel and directly cuts in half (literally, as it appears in the song’s center) the chances of the album’s most accessibly jangle-folk anthem from becoming lead single material. “Cloud Center” is drenched in choral background vocals and a din of backwards-masked harmonies, and appears as the album’s nine-minute centerpiece.
Occasionally, the noises, though generally tuned to a pleasantly evocative timbre with the weight and depth of Fennesz’s best, overwhelm the vocals, making the human voices almost supplemental. The vocals are already sung rather effetely, lacking much of the robust melodic resonance of Brooklyn peers Animal Collective, an odd choice for someone with Thomas’s pop chops. By having Thomas’s larynx shrink behind walls of sound, the music’s presence is slightly dulled. And part of what makes Thomas’s and Animal Collective’s mixes so enthralling are the ways in which they take a dubiously persistent and perhaps otherwise useless loop and transform it into something transcendent.
On City Center, the determined push of man (voice) versus the elements (noise) seems to be part of an ongoing struggle, a fight against fading away and being absorbed into the city. “Who’ll be the first one erased? / I get off work at seven o’clock / And then I get replaced”, Thomas says on “Bleed Blood”. “The waves come to eat you / You know you don’t get through the way you used to”, he says on “Killer Whale”. After making a million songs only a couple people have heard, it’s understandable for Thomas to harbor a little insecurity. He captures this brilliantly though in his work with City Center, and perhaps you can help him out by giving his densely-populated-yet-naked, dark-yet-glowing latest a spin.