So much of Jason Anderson’s career has revolved around idolatry. Inspired in 1996 by an Elliott Smith concert, the singer/songwriter formed Portland, Oregon’s bedroom-folk-cum-indie-pop outfit Wolf Colonel. With his solo debut—2004’s New England—he seemed to worship at the altar of labelmate and Microphones frontman/boy genius Phil Elvrum, crafting an album awash in analog fuzz and subdued arrangements and conforming with seeming disingenuousness to the institutionalized K Records “sound.” While most notable for the album’s inclusion of the Elvrum-penned and sung “Thanksgiving”—which was first found a month earlier on The Microphones’ Live in Japan—New England was largely a collaborative affair, with vocal appearances by Elvrum, Mirah Yom Tov Zeitlyn, and label head Calvin Johnson serving as an interesting replacement for Wolf Colonel’s occasionally band-oriented approach. And while all this resulted in some decent lo-fi folk, it was confusing to see the veteran Anderson—already at least four years into his career—relying so heavily on the contributions of his peers.
Perhaps it made sense; K Records has always functioned more as a collective than a proper label. Just as Anderson welcomed the assistance of Elvrum et. al., he himself has toured and recorded as a member of Yume Bitsu, The Microphones, Little Wings and other acts from the Pacific Northwest. New England had an interesting quirk, however: a cover of “A Book Laid on Its Binding” by B-list Saddle Creek Records outfit and Nebraskan mainstay Son, Ambulance. Anderson once played guitar for that same ensemble, and is still a member of Omaha’s Legend of Zelda. When I first heard the record, it seemed paradoxical to me; two diverging sounds seemed to coalesce within Anderson’s debut, balancing—for better or for worse—his own label’s understated yet uniquely lush elegance with the oft-overstated and instrumentally elaborate charm of many of the Saddle Creek acts, particularly the neo-folk of current wunderkind and Bright Eyes mastermind Conor Oberst.
Though not abandoning the minimalist arrangements of New England, Anderson sets his sight exclusively on the latter of the two influences with his second solo release (and fifth overall), The Wreath. In “When Will You Say?” he sings, “I’ve toured to New Hampshire by way of Nebraska / Yeah, there’s some good friends in Omaha / I’ve been wanting to see.”
Much structurally tighter than its predecessor, The Wreath is another torn-out diary entry of Anderson’s reflective bedroom confessionals and self-conscious musings. And despite an increased emphasis on melody, his melodrama-infused lyricism and Oberst-meets-Robert Pollard vocals claw for prominence throughout. It is decisively his true solo debut, and—consistently beautiful vocal contributions from Rachael Jenson and Karen MacDonald notwithstanding—carries a sense of autonomy absent from New England. Anderson played nearly the totality of instruments on both records, but New England‘s boundaries were clearly defined within the K universe; The Wreath almost seems anomalous alongside his labelmates’ work. So the album displays growth; unfortunately, it’s also exceedingly and inescapably boring.
“I’m not giving up,” he begs in opener “O, Jac!”, demanding, “Well, are you?” Anderson’s easily fingerable formula soon emerges: lightly strummed acoustic guitars, resonant piano, alternatively flat and warbly vocals, and heartfelt yet embarrassingly clichéd utterances like, “And everyone I know, well I haven’t told them / but if they knew they’d say stop / before you get bruised.” In “If I’m Waiting,” he sings, “I’m slowly embracing the concept of you as a ghost”... later continuing, “Leaving the house has started to feel like a fourth grader’s Christmas Eve.” These contrivances relentlessly pervade the album’s span as Anderson laments over loves lost. “When Will You Say?” contains the album’s most cringe-worthy moment:
When will you say:
‘Oh, Jason Anderson,
You’re so awesome!
Do you love me?’
Hallelujah, I love you!
Those offenses aside, the album is not entirely without merit; in a reworked “Citizen’s Arrest” (originally found on Wolf Colonel’s 2003 split EP with The Paperbacks), the painstaking restraint plaguing the disc’s subtler numbers is replaced by an infectiously-noodled guitar lead and a wonderfully unexpected horn section come song’s end. Even lyrics like “You’re just lazy / You’re just selfish / And so am I” are among the album’s most digestible. “Citizen’s Arrest” just may be the first great power-pop anthem of 2005. But more importantly (and disappointingly), it’s just proof that somewhere beneath the tape hiss, balladry, and oft-indulgent self-awareness, a great pop writer may reside. Here’s hoping for next time.