If you’re a lover of baroque indie folk music, you might be already familiar with the surname Tillman. J. (Joshua) Tillman is the drummer for the universally acclaimed Seattle group Fleet Foxes. He also played in a post-rock band called Saxon Shore with his brother Zach in the early 2000s. Zach is now following in his more semi-famous brother’s footsteps by starting a solo project called Pearly Gate Music, which not only sounds musically a little like the soundtrack to a first meeting with St. Peter in the afterlife, with its acoustic guitars that sound a little like harps, but sometimes resembles Fleet Foxes in its folksiest, quietest moments.
Pearly Gate Music is not, however, an exact carbon copy of Fleet Foxes. Zach Tillman, who sometimes backs himself up live and in the studio with various band arrangements, mines a style of music that owes itself more to a blend of the coffeehouse folk of the ‘60s, the sunny pop of the Beach Boys, the neo-psychedelica of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel, the ragged country music of the mid-‘50s, and even, just a little bit, the revivalist spirituals you’d hear in prayer tents around middle America. (“The only man I ever loved / died two thousand years before,” sings Tillman on “Oh, What a Time!”, the record’s most overt Christian moment, which goes on to detail without irony what it would be like to have a homosexual affair with Jesus.) It’s an interesting mix of different styles and genres of low-fi, almost garage-y music, but like a cake mix stirred up with an inexact blend of the proper ingredients, it comes off a little bit lumpy at times. That’s not the worst of the problems facing Pearly Gate Music though.
The eponymous debut album starts off with more of a whimper than a bang: “Golden Funeral” is a four-and-a-half minute dirge that seems to be about a loss of innocence in a young boy’s life, but being backed by only Tillman’s vocals, a slightly-shifting organ line and very light cymbal work, it is an unassuming and awful start to the record. Strangely, given the prominence and attention of making it the opening track, it is easily the album’s worst song—one that will have most people reaching for the skip or shuffle button on their media device. (Though, admittedly, it does play slightly better when listened to low as background music in the dark after an exhaustingly hard day of office-bound labour, so, as a mood piece, it is perhaps more successful. Still, it’s perplexing that it opens the album on a sombre note, considering what follows is generally more uplifting.)
The follow-up track “Big Escape” is far superior, and this is where Pearly Gate Music begins in earnest. It’s a catchy song that Brian Wilson might have written with the help of Jeff Magnum, complete with a fuzzed-out ending that wouldn’t sound out of place on On Avery Island. It does, however, fall back on clichés: “I’ve got the time / If you’ve got the notion” sings Tillman, which sounds like a borrowed feeling if there ever was one. What’s more, it could use a bit more bite in its drum sound, which is a simple metronomic beat.
Next up is “Navy Blues”, which is a track that seems to owe a bit musically to the Louvin Brothers’ “Great Atomic Power” and is just about as corny. It’s hard to take lines like “Oh, you look great in your navy blues / There’s something about it, that certain hue / How the seams, they dance so well / Over your perfect earthly form / I guess I’m overcome” without bursting out into guffaws. Is this parody? Are we meant to take Pearly Gate Music seriously?
And so it goes, at least until the mid-way point of the record, which seems to improve—being a matter of the songwriting getting better and the listener becoming more used to Tillman’s idiosyncrasies. “I Was a River”, arguably the album’s best song, sounds like a plaintive slow-burning folksy outtake from the Fleet Foxes debut, right down to the finally sincere lyrics (“If I was a river ... / I’d swim through valleys carved out to the sea / Yeah, if I was a river / You’d know where I’d be”), and Tillman’s vocals here pass resemblance to that band’s Robin Pecknold. Meanwhile, “Daddy Wrote You Letters” is a homage to Neil Young cum Johnny Cash that brims with unbridled anger, suffering only from an unnecessary octave shift in the latter quarter of the track. Possibly offering up an unintended self-critique of his own songcraft, Tillman here sings: “I read your diary in one sitting / I got on a roll and I thought that maybe this would get interesting / So I sat down and read the whole goddamn thing.”
However, Pearly Gate Music takes its time getting anywhere of note, and Zach Tillman, while offering moments of sonic amusement and musical genre awareness despite some unevenness, really needs to work on his lyrics. Too much time is spent listening to this album in a bemused state, thanks to the often uneven wordsmithing. One thing is for certain: this band won’t make you forget about Fleet Foxes, an obviously better and much more refined group that doesn’t write a song about dating Jesus for (unintentional?) laughs. For following in his brother’s footsteps, Zach Tillman stumbles a little once too often, every time he opens his mouth to, as the final track would have it, “Rejoice”.