Don’t be fooled by reviews or press releases that describe Halos & Lassos as 19 songs in under a half hour. My experience with the record is that is more like one 29-minute suite, a flipbook in which each song is a page, the resulting comic strip of a man praying and jumping rope at the same time. The very idea of isolating one of the songs out of the whole gives me vertigo. The songs pipe along like toy trains, powered mostly by songwriter John Ringhofer’s chirping voice and an electronic Omnichord, which is defined by the label as a “vintage ‘80s kidney-shaped electronic auto-harp/drum machine/synthesizer”. Armed primarily with these, though skilled in a variety of instruments and abetted by Brandon and Wendy Buckner, Ringhofer cheerily squeezes volumes of theology and observations into miniature nuggets of pop.
The theology of Halos & Lassos will be old, comfy hat to fans of the new wave of left-leaning Christian musicians asserting that God is not to be ignored because He can’t be ignored, “We know you’re among us in hearts that form a nation / You don’t separate yourself or hide behind some distant constellation”. In Ringhofer’s songs, the modern, secular world may be a stumbling block on the road to spiritual fulfillment, but it’s not insurmountable, “Trade some horses for automobiles … either way you’ll pass through the body of God / No matter if you ride or if you trod.”
If I had to compare Ringhofer’s sound and style with a more familiar artist, it wouldn’t be like-minded compatriots Sufjan Stevens or the Danielson Famile (as I had expected). Instead, Half-handed Cloud reminds me of a one-man version of the two-member Quasi. On “Tongues That Possess the Earth Instead”, Ringhofer declares “The unbelievers seem to have it good / And I envied arrogance when I saw their prosperity / … Mouths lay claim to heaven / But tongues possess the earth.” The syllables can’t seem to get into the melody fast enough, as if Ringhofer was trying to put out a fire, using his words for water. Combined with the sugary sweetness of the arrangement, the effect is dizzying. “Foot on the Brake” is better; at one-minute and 26 seconds it boldly squeezes its own multitude of sections into a palindrome-like structure, the best of which is a wordless, drum-less centerpiece of banjo and bells.
“You’ve Been Faithful to Us Clouds” is like “Dark Star” in comparison, a virtual epic Ringhofer composition, exultant in its bubblegum oohs and doo-doo-doos, and a thumping Brandon Buckner drumbeat. It’s also the best song here. When Ringhofer expands his attention span, he expands the attention span of the listener. Indeed, feeling satisfied after “Faithful”, I can better tune into the lovely “Blackbird”-like “Skip the Rope” rather than feel beaten down by yet another pixie stick. Although there’s nothing wrong with working small, the danger is in leaning toward gimmick. I don’t think Ringhofer goes that far by any means, as “You’ve Been Faithful to Us Clouds” shows that Half-handed Cloud can be more than a one-trick pony if he chooses to stretch out his legs a bit.