Portland-based Old Light seems to have a sense of humour. On the four-piece’s MySpace page, they categorize their sound as black metal (hardly, though there’s a hint—a tiny hint—of Black Sabbath in terms of a droning quality), healing and easy listening (maybe a little bit more on the mark), and psychedelic (kind of). The accompanying press release to this album quotes John Dwyer from the band Thee Oh Sees as saying Old Light is “like Crosby, Stills and Nash if they didn’t suck!” Let’s not forget for a moment that that group sometimes occupies the services of some guy from Canada named Neil Young, who does not suck (well, maybe aside from those records he made in the 1980s), and Old Light definitely has a kind of hazy Southern California by way of Alabama resonance that the best music of Young occupies. What’s more, Old Light have a song on their debut album The Dirty Future called “Old Man”. Wouldn’t you know, Neil Young has a classic song by the same name, and it should be said that Old Light’s version is not a cover. Homage? You decide.
The story of how Old Light came to be has nothing to do with any creation-based story from the Bible, as the name might imply. It also has nothing to do with Old and New Light: a designation in Christian circles to denote two groups at odds with each other over theology. It’s a rather plain and ordinary tale where guitarist Charlie Hester was looking at the night sky and made the following comment about the amount of time it takes starlight to travel to Earth: “Man, that’s some old light.” The story of how the band started to actually make music is just as plain and folksy. The tale begins with an autoharp—a musical instrument with 36 strings that’s not a harp at all, but rather a type of zither. The band’s lead singer and former San Francisco cab driver, Garth Steel Klippert, happened to find the apparatus through an antique instrument guru in Winters, California, and, once it was in his possession, started to record it over and over, layering the tracks. The end result, at least on The Dirty Future, is a series of instrumental songs that echo to create a mood that might not be out of place in your traditional Spaghetti Western.
However, Old Light is utterly contemporary to a number of indie bands out there at the moment. While, yes, they kind of sound a bit like Crosby, Stills and Nash (and Young), if not classic Southern Rock bands such as the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd, you can find precedents and influences in groups such as Fleet Foxes: Old Light comes very close to delivering their songs in harmonic rounds, particularly on “Something for Nothing”, and Klippert closely resembles Robin Pecknold in his folksy delivery. On the song “Magnetar”, Old Light harmonizes in a way that—if you scrunch up your ears a bit—sounds strangely like TV on the Radio. Then there are times when the band could almost pass for a Pacific Northwest version of Local Natives, just without the polyrhythmic drumming (well, if you overlook the tribal pounding of “Something for Nothing”) and nods to the Talking Heads.
There are a number of striking moments on The Dirty Future. “Disappear” is a sun-bleached piece of Americana that feels like it was sampled from another source and actually is made all the more intriguing by the fact that it doesn’t boast a chorus. “Cmon” is a breezy, richly textured track with great harmonies that could seriously pass for something in the canon of Neil Young. “Pretty Machete” is almost note-for-note a retread of something Crosby, Stills and Nash turned out early in their career, but is much harder edged with a hint of blistering punk rock in its chorus. There are also breaks in the title track that recall the work of the Beach Boys, no lie. However, the record is hampered by its instrumental passages. “Automn”, which opens up The Dirty Future, has a nice laconic feel to it and ghostly “whoos” in the background, but, even at two minutes and 18 seconds, it feels about a minute too long. “Hawk in Hand” is one of the aforementioned layered autoharp songs, but it gets repetitive and burdensome at just a pinch over four minutes.
Still, there are enough pleasures on this album to warrant it being in your record collection. There is a sense of cosmic unity to the album, for one. The word “magnetar” shows up not only in the song of the same name, but reappears in “Old Man”. (A magnetar is a type of neutron star with an extremely powerful magnetic field surrounding it.) Elsewhere on “Cmon” the band sings about looking around at the secrets of the universe, and there are a couple of references to storm clouds bearing down from above—a testament to the band’s infatuation with Biblical imagery. However, more pertinently, this is an album about growing old, of wanting to grow old with the ones you love, and dying. That such bleak and stark themes are wrapped up in such a rollickingly fun and old-timey package is to give credit to the strength of the songwriting on display here. Sure, it could have used an editor, as some of the tracks seem to be here for the sole purpose of bolstering the running time past an extended play’s length, but The Dirty Future has a winsome quality to it steeply rooted in an almost Southern Gothic tradition. By making a generally well-crafted record that has the cadence of the here and now, as well as making more than a few nods to songwriters of yesteryear, the members of Old Light might just be the ones getting the last laugh.