A Punk in Folk's Clothing
The graduation from punk to roots rock, country, and folk has become somewhat of a natural progression—the liberties afforded by the medium of punk music serving as much-needed practice for the skill more multi-faceted musical endeavors, particularly ones that delve into traditional styles, require. We’ve seen it in Ryan Adams, who went from making punk music with his first band the Patty Duke Syndrome to alt-country with Whiskeytown and later as a solo act. Well before Adams was John Doe of seminal ‘80s punk-rock band X, with his latter day country-rock albums. Most recently there is Jim O’Rourke, now a member of Sonic Youth, whose side projects include work with alt-country pioneer Jeff Tweedy. The ease with which the two deceptively similar musical styles meld, furthers the claim that all forms of rock are essentially folk music at their cores. Patrick Park can claim a punk past in his repertoire as well, having been a member of several such bands in L.A. before coming around to his particular brand of singing and songwriting. In his debut EP, Under the Unminding Skies, Park’s punk sensibility finds a quiet (almost inaudible) voice, detectable in the anguished lyrics but not much in the music.
By the sheer quality of Park’s delivery it’s easy to see that said practice making punk music paid off. Park rids himself of the constraints of the guitar pick and opts for the more challenging method of traditional finger-picking, which imbues the material with a natural quality, steeped in country twang, that prevents it from becoming excessively wispy—a danger Park is, for the most part, careful to avoid. His voice possesses the slightly hoarse mellowness of Nick Drake (no doubt achieved by smoking thousands of cigarettes and screaming his head off in a punk band) which then soars to the near-weeping crescendos of Jeff Buckley but without the classical vocal training that would potentially throw many of these tracks right over the top. Stretching his vocal chords beyond his natural range, he nears the point of cracking but never lets it go quite that far. The songs, none much over three minutes in length, are tales of general angst encountered on the slog through life as a sensitive guy in a necessarily troubled world or relationship or any other whine-worthy situation.
“Love Is a Bomb” starts it right off with a prancing mix of soft percussion, acoustic guitar and a harmonica where Park’s skill as a musician and composer are immediately evident. The easy picking style he deftly employs, be it electric or acoustic guitar or mandolin, is directly responsible for the catchiness and quality of the music. The lyrics, while not bad, and yes angst-ridden, don’t say anything we haven’t all heard before.
“Nothing’s Wrong” and “Untitled” are pleasantly mellow odes, again, to the subtle torments and disappointments of a relationship, “I’m sick of your voice / The things that you say / They just don’t sound the same as they did before”.
Park’s sugar-sweet rendition of “Caroline Goodbye”, written by Colin Blunstone of the Zombies, recalls White Album-era Beatles with a slice of syrupy ‘70s AM radio (think Bread sans schlock, if you can). What saves it from sinking in the sappy muck is the tight composition. Park’s good taste is evident, perhaps too much so: the polish of the songs can come off a bit precious. “Home for Now” is as catchy as they come, not unlike a Ben Folds tune but without the prominence of a piano line, and, like the rest of the set, oh-so-pretty and forlorn.
The closing track is a cover of the traditional “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, as arranged by Alvin Carter of Carter Family fame. This is Park at his best. He systematically reveals his penchant for country, folk, and rock (in that order). Opening with delicate acoustic country strums, he slides in with his smoothly honed folksy voice and throws on a crackly, classic-rock electric lick, turning out the sound he should continue to strive for: his own unique take on roots-based music without much of the polish of overproduction.
The songs are all very pretty and heart-wrenching and all the rest but the overall effect would greatly benefit from less shimmer and more gravel, that is of course if Park wants to avoid the radio overkill he is sure to experience with such highly accessible, infectious, music. “It’s hard waking up to that big city drum”, says Park, an apparent reference to the brief period he lived in New York. Had he not gone and mellowed out in L.A., but instead endured the New York drum, the grittiness of the city might have rekindled his punk attitude enough to provide the more substantive scratchiness this album needs.