If there’s one main complaint I would make about Camphor’s debut album, Drawn to Dust, it’s that it was released during the wrong season. Drawn to Dust is not a springtime album. As its title suggests, rather than calling forth renewal and fresh life, this is an album that finds beauty in decay and whose songs seem to exist in that yellowing grey light of an autumn dusk that links a shortening day to a chilly night. “Everywhere you look are piles of bones / And everyone you meet are piles of bones ... But oh how inspiring / Oh how real” is a typical sentiment expressed on this album—not exactly what you typically listen to while surrounded by newly blooming daffodils.
That’s not a serious complaint, though, because beauty in decay is still beauty. Drawn to Dust is a beautifully organic album, full of songs with a complexity that practically breathes and whose life cycle you can hear. Each song is a case study in the chemical interaction of elements, with rustic strings and woodwinds mixed with extra-terrestrial static and buzz and with highly structured chamber compositions fading roughly into ambient nature recordings. The album is structured as the cycle of a day, beginning with “Daybreak” and ending with “Sundown”. Lyrically, the album focuses on the end of that life cycle, and the frequently lovely phrasings contrast with the bleakness of the subject matter. “American beauty withering on the vine”, singer and songwriter Max Avery Lichtenstein intones, “Saccharine smile rotting at the root / Needle nose bulldoze pulling the sweetest tooth”. And you can hear the “water drops drizzle from the joints between all of the pipes” on “Button Up”, as keyboard and glockenspiel notes echo drip-drops around the words.
Lichtenstein cut his professional teeth scoring independent films, writing the music that lay under stories that ranged from the outlandish American Gothic (The King) to a raw documentary about growing up with a mentally ill mother, culled from home movies, answering machine recordings, still photos, and letters (Tarnation). Lichtenstein says that his songwriting for Camphor came about as an effort to explore music “un-tethered” from the strict emotional and storytelling requirements of film scores, and in some ways Drawn to Dust sounds like he just reversed the process, writing the movie for a film before a film exists rather than the other way around. The dirge-like piano chords, strings, bells, and horns that build and then disperse on opener “Daybreak” conjure the anticipation that builds until the first rays of sunlight break over the horizon in an exceptionally visual way, and the rest of the album is similarly visceral. This album would score an unusual and inventive movie, though. Album centerpiece “Castaway”, for example, is a rhythmic sea shanty underscored by a flamenco beat and mariachi horns. One imagines an impassioned tete-a-tete performed by a pirate and his mistress on the slanting deck of a sinking ship.
Perhaps because of both the cinematic and organic nature of the album, some of the songs feel merely transitional, used for the listener to exhale between the peaks of the standout tunes. But the standout tunes are excellent. When Lichtenstein sings these lines on “Tired Light”, you can hear the atmosphere crackle, with low-fi midrange fuzzing over the layers of slide guitar, horns, and piano:
With borrowed heat from distant fires
Ashes from a spark
I feel you shiver in the dark
And I will burn for you
A swirl of light and fire
“Button Up” has a similar liltingly pretty melody with a celestial-sounding base complementing the descriptions of haloed moons and tiny, tinny voices emanating from electronic devices. “The Sweetest Tooth” relies on a slow bass and piano groove before blowing out into an explosive chorus, and the playful whistling, hand-claps, and sing-along accusations of betrayal on “Confidences Shattered” make me wish that Lichtenstein had channeled more frustration in this upbeat way and subbed out some of the droning that makes other tunes seem to run together.
All of the songs are anchored by Lichtenstein’s throaty singing voice, which has the intensity and vocal timbre of Beck’s Sea Change melancholia. Like the other instruments on this album, Lichtenstein’s voice sounds soothing now, and you can imagine it sounding even better later in the year, when paired with the crackling of falling leaves, completing the end of the life cycle to which Lichtenstein is so astutely attuned.