A Ghostly, Infectious Indie Album
There’s a ghost hidden within In Tall Buildings’ sophomore LP, Driver.
It’s in the muffled snare beat, the spaces between the intermittent bass notes, and trapped inside the soft-sung lines of vocalist / composer Erik Hall. It wanders the dusty hallways of well-thought arrangements on tracks like “Exiled” and “Unmistakable”, and loops back on itself on the circling “Aloft”. It’s not a malevolent spirit, just a brief vision, a flash of inexplainable solitary light that appears for seconds on end, and drifts away only to reappear in another corner of a well-lit room.
Hall has spent four years following up his self-titled release. And the Chicago-based singer / songwriter sounds like he labors over every note and phrase on Driver. With so much time on his hands and more than enough time to release a purely functional finished product, one might think Driver has percolated for too long and, as a result, the LP could fall into the trap of being far too insular; one of those records trapped within the confines of the composer’s own head. But Driver is heavy on melodies and breezy in its effortlessness. It’s the kind of album that moves in different ways during different times and reveals aural layers on multiple listens.
Hall has teased Driver with two wide-eyed and instantly likable singles: album opener “Bawl Cry Wail” and the synth-led “Flare Gun”. As far as ear candy goes, one could do much worse than this pair of songs. “Bawl Cry Wail” subverts its imposing title by kicking off the tearjerker status and hammering down on an acoustic guitar until it rattles with pleasure. As the drum and cymbals drop in, more delicately than necessary, Hall adds piece upon piece to the track—an effect-laden guitar, an arpeggiated synth, and some functional static noise to round it out—only to strip it bare again with 40 seconds left. It’s the type of precision that most musicians would call attention to without a second thought. But Hall leaves it all at the same level and keeps all the elements moving in a steady, fluid state.
“Flare Gun” is as close to a pop song as Hall is willing to go, and as delicate and catchy as it is, his hyper-awareness of the song’s pop structure finds him pulling back a bit. The chorus doesn’t arrive so much as it ambles in: “not so inclined to lean on your flare gun / it’s not a crime to reach for your flare gun.” All of this is followed up with a lyrical shrug and wink: “it’s really no bother”. And the synth loop plays on until its clipped short, a weaker ending to an otherwise strong single.
Hall’s lyrical tell, “it’s really no bother”, acts as the prevailing mentality of Driver. He sounds as if he’s half-awake vocally throughout much of the album, with “I’ll Be Up Soon” and “Bawl Cry Wail” being the exceptions that reach for higher vocal range. But this observation isn’t meant to be critical. Most indie vocalists don’t opt for volume or pitch to carry their songs and Hall’s vocals are expertly mixed in to match the subtlety and volume of the understated, mid tempo presence of the surrounding instruments on Driver. Where he lacks lyrical and vocal dynamics, he creates instrumental nuance. You’ll have to listen hard for the feedback guitar that permeates “All You Pine” and the lonesome keys that punctuate “When You See Me Fall”. But the reward comes from repeated listens (preferably with headphones) as you slowly capture every piece of the musical puzzle Hall snaps together to make the whole.
“I’m a lot of things, but not that,” Hall intones on “When You See Me Fall”. Of course, in the same song he also tells us that “deus ex machina is not enough.” And all of this comes before the terrific album closer, “Pouring Out”, where he lets loose with as much reckless abandon as he can muster. For Hall, another four years with Driver might have suited him just fine, but for the rest of us, we’re lucky that he knew when to let go and when to let Driver find its place in the world.