Ever since I quit smoking, I’ve found that my other addictions run a little hotter than usual: morning coffee brings a more palpable rush, weekend beers impart an almost troubling sense of well-being, and music—my most cherished of all double-edged swords—is sharper, to say the least. With a 250GB hard drive nearing capacity, I’m developing a variation on the eyes-bigger-than-stomach problem; I’m psychologically (and computer-ly) busting at the seams. More and more, I’m finding the albums that really stick are the ones that insinuate themselves into my listening routine. They appear as if by magic on my iPod screen, existing entirely apart from my knee-jerk critical faculties, wiggling past addictions, and appealing on some entirely subconscious level.
Which brings me to Wilderness, the first of these strange, post-cigarette bands. Their self-titled debut has gotten my iPod’s royal treatment, garnering the attention of the seldom-used repeat function. After a listen, I’ve often had to start the album again without, in truth, knowing why. For a while, I put most other listening on hold in the service of Wilderness, whose album’s appeal was just too bizarre to ignore. I had to know the band’s secret. “I will see them live,” I decided, and then I can go back to listening to everything I can get my hands on, like a normal addict.
12 Jan 2005: Pianos New York
Once the band picks up their instruments at the Lower East Side club, it becomes clear that, taken on their own, none of Wilderness’ elements are inherently off-putting. The rhythm section is boilerplate echo-y post-rock, all expressive drum fills, rhythmic bass, and icy, delay-saturated guitar - lovely, dynamic, and hard-hitting to the max, an Explosions in the Sky soundalike with post-punk gloom darkening the sentimentality. Onstage, the bass player strikes ballsy, distorted power chords, asserting a melodic presence absent from the record, expertly vying for dominance with the guitarist’s towering riffs. All of this is no surprise - the record sounds gigantic, and Pianos’ small stage compresses the group’s dynamics, adding a pleasingly visceral punch to the rhythms. And then the singer grabs the microphone, and things get complicated.
Wilderness’ “singer” James Johnson—slightly balding, dressed in pleated charcoal greys and horn-rim specs like an eighth-grade English teacher - is more of a vocalist, really, in that he uses his vocal chords to make sounds that have all the characteristics of singing, all the expression and capacity for emotion and subtlety. But when he opens his mouth wide and howls over his band’s sparkle and sprawl, you would never really call it singing. The long, a-melodic parabolas form rhythmic arcs that one can almost see emanating from his mouth. Like a medieval town crier, Johnson yells stream-of-consciousness, vaguely political slogans that he may or may not be making up on the spot—things like “human contact!/ Happening over your head!”.
Johnson is nigh-incomprehensible most of the time, his utterances made up of extended soft-vowel sounds. Wilderness only played one song I recognized, and even that, the album’s gut-punch single “Arkless”, was mangled beyond recognition, transformed into a sardonic ad-lib about New York City.
It isn’t the individual elements of Wilderness’ sound, but the contrast between Johnson’s grandiose, grotesque wail and his band’s gorgeous sounds that are so exquisitely confounding. Were Johnson singing in a hardcore band (and he must have—the guy sounds like he’s been singing this way since he was in diapers), his style would seem melodramatic, indulgent. With Wilderness, he has clearly found a home for his odd brand of shout-singing, a place where his band’s stylistic excesses - drawn-out melodic passages, the wall of effects - are a strange compliment lending the songs a fist-in-the-air pathos that neither the band nor Johnson could muster on their own.
During their brief set, Wilderness lumbered through five or six extended “songs,” either improvised or from their upcoming album (I was blissfully ignorant), with Johnson holding the focus throughout. He truly commanded the stage, gesturing constantly but calmly, like some kind of new-age communist orator. Stock still, microphone in hand, alternately pointing to his head and heart, he made precise motions with his body, pulling invisible strings and manipulating imaginary objects that he seemed to believe were controlling the music. This man clearly feels Wilderness, and it’s a little goofy—not to mention creepy.
Again, in any other context, I would reject this guy as a histrionic phony; I’d barely be able to contain the snickering. But when a guy like Johnson uncannily finds his way into a band like Wilderness, the resulting noise could keep me transfixed for a long time. Or at least until I inevitably start smoking again. Shortens the attention span, dontcha know.
// Notes from the Road
"Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, brought her Freedom Highway tour to New York for a powerful show. The tour resumes next week and hits Newport Folk later this summer.READ the article