If a fighter jet crashed in the desert, this would be the soundtrack to the debris. Rusty String, the first full-length release from Oregon-based multi-instrumentalist Tom Filepp under the moniker of cars & trains, is simultaneously political and personal, introspective and expansive, and above all, a clashing experimental amalgam of organic and electronic sounds. The self-explanatory “Some Sort of Overture” might open the record with a recorded female diatribe against war to the soundtrack of a peculiarly effective combination of woodwind and thumping beats, but it is immediately followed by “The Wires from My Broken Record Player”, a banjo-led piece addressing matters far less universal.
These contrasts, both aural and thematic, are typical of Rusty String. Indeed, the very nature of the electro-folk Filepp trades in is a contradictory mesh of the traditional and the contemporary. cars & trains’ music is an array of smaller, individual sonic spheres: Filepp’s undemonstrative vocals, the twang of an acoustic guitar, drum machines, glockenspiels, horns, recorded interviews, electronic bleeps. Each could stand on their own, or be removed and implanted in much more familiar surroundings. But then why should they be when this, this vast landscape of sounds, works so well, and is pulled off with the sort of aplomb that suggests Filepp neither knows nor cares that, say, banjos and drum machines are uncomfortable bedfellows?
Unsurprisingly, it takes a few listens to get your head around the sheer scale of Rusty String, for everything to truly click into place. Initially, Filepp’s ever-so-uncomfortable vocal styling gets pushed to the fore, and “The Sky Is Clear”, the album’s most accessible moment—an unexpected but successful foray into hip-hop fronted by Anticon’s Sole—sticks in the mind most prominently. A few listens later, and everything comes into focus. “The Sky Is Clear” is still a lyrical and melodic coup, but then so too are the vocal harmonies of “Oh, Sweet Consequence”, while “Further from Home”‘s ingenious sampling of found sounds are a triumph.
It is herein that lays the real joy of cars & trains. Felipp’s ability to interpret melody, be it from such sampled recordings or from his own box of tricks, is genuinely impressive. In “Fake Plastic Guns”, he takes a simple acoustic guitar line, repeats, expands, and morphs it until it is new. “Beatitudes” sees him cut-and-pasting a female vocal into brief, incoherent snippets to create something different entirely, while “The Singing Will Never Cease” begins life as a film noir soundtrack before it is stamped all over by a punishingly thunderous beat.
Still, there is something more to cars & trains, something redolent that cannot be explained simply by crunching beats and piecemeal melodies. Perhaps what makes cars & trains so alluring is that it is always a little rough-around-the-edges. With the likes of Four Tet and Boards of Canada, everything is layered and programmed to perfection. Here, things are no different, when it comes to the latter barrel of the folk-electronic Rusty String trades in, at least. But what prevents distance forming between Filepp and the listener is the human aspect of the album. Filepp is no music-making robot, he’s a young man with an acoustic guitar and a head full of memories, as the childhood retrospection of “Fake Plastic Guns” (“Daydreams consumed me / Like a fever continuously / While running through the neighbor’s yards / To the ends of the world”) reminds us. At times the guitar work on Rusty String can be slipshod, and Filepp’s vocals, too, a little sloppy, but significantly this doesn’t detract from the record. Instead, its tightness is found in its electronic surroundings and these irregularities merely bring personality and intimacy, like the bedroom sessions of a fledgling musician.
Apparently, Filepp’s father was computer programmer-cum-rock bassist, and the influence that seems to have had on his son is glaringly apparent here. If it is indeed such parental authority that started cars & trains’ musical journey, then we might well owe Filepp Sr. a thank-you, for Rusty String is a triumphant experiment into what can be done when art and technology intertwine, and there is an undeniable joy in seeing the album veer from thumping beats and breakdowns to acoustic plucking and glockenspiels. Regardless of its foundation, it is a delightfully inventive album of fantastic melody and ingenuity that should be commended as much for its songwriting as it should its experimentation.