In his evolution from indie Envelope to early solo songwriter discs to the present, Paul Brill has gradually slipped the bonds of rock conventions. His first solo records, dubbed electro-Americana by critics, reflected Brill’s post bidding-war disenchantment with the indie rock world, drawing what seemed genuine at the time—bluegrass, country and folk. His last album, 2004’s New Pagan Love Song, went a step further, spinning synthesized atmospherics alongside organic textures of strings and guitars. Now, with Harpooner, Brill moves even further from guy-with-a-guitar territories, using shades of marimba, keyboards and synthesizer as subtle flourishes around his warm and raspy voice. He hasn’t quite made the “no guitar at all” album he’s been talking about… but he’s getting close.
Even “Paris Is On”, clearly the accessible single, starts as a soundscape, all hiss and blip and subtle piano chords and abstract descriptions of oil fires and desert landscapes. The beat picks up after the first verse, four on the floor kick drum grounding the cut, cymbals and percolating synthetic beat pushing it forward. It even turns kind of dancy, slashed through one of the CD’s rare bursts of electric guitar as it gains momentum. This, coincidentally, is the track that Brill got Jason Forrest to remix (this non-album track can be downloaded at www.paulbrill.com), and the partnership totally makes sense, since both are making rock with technology in a way that few can match.
Still, it’s not just rock that Brill is interested in, and several of the most interesting tracks diverge from the genre’s four-four conventions. The title track exists in its own space, totally untethered to any recognizable time signature, luminous with some sort of malleted percussion, oboe trills and droning strings. Brill’s lyrics come in bursts, then stop, allowing ambient sounds to fill the spaces. There’s probably a traditional-sounding song in there somewhere, but here on the disc it feels like a perfect distillation of mood, unbounded and unregulated by verse chorus conventions. Later, closing cut “And So to Sleep” echoes Spirit of Eden‘s evocative sense of space, Brill’s voice cutting gently through miasmas of abstract tone. A jazz-leaning piano line murmurs in the background, interspersed with the words as if in conversation.
Most of the cuts are non-linear, glancing, referring to stories without spelling them out, so it’s a bit of an adjustment when “Don’t Tell Them”, pops up late in the album, as straightforward a song as you could expect. Adorned with Latin-style horns, harmonized with gorgeous female voices, paced by drum machines, it’s warm, simple, direct and excellent on its own terms. It’s just not as adventurous as the rest of Harpooner. It makes you realize that Paul Brill could hold his own on the guitar stool circuit alongside anyone, but isn’t it great that he doesn’t?
- "Paris Is On" MP3