[7 March 2007]
What’s the aural equivalent of blinking? Whatever it is, if you do it you’ll likely miss “Glass Houses”, the first cut on Rivulets’ You Are My Home, and then you’ll be sorry. The song sets a new standard for fragility, a two-minute stunner of frail, double-tracked vocals and minimalist guitar. Nick Drake’s perpetually-summoned ghost sounds hale and hardy in comparison, in the classic tradition of British stiff upper-lipism. Nathan Amundson, on the other hand, sounds as lonely as a fencepost buried in a Great Plains snowstorm. And though the rest of the tracks on You Are My Home feature string sections, squalls of electric guitar, and other such embellishments, the high lonesome vibe pervades, as if the arrangements were just imaginary friends brought in to testify to Amundson’s private musings.
In terms of conjuring a heightened sense of isolation, I’m tempted to compare Rivulets to the solo Jason Molina records. However, although songs like “You Sail On” and “Morning Light” begin with one instrument, one voice, they soon build to incorporate a variety of textures. The generally reverb-light production also creates a sense of claustrophobia surrounding Amundson’s songs, as opposed to Molina’s galactic, echoing emptiness. There’s also the question of country. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy-style artwork notwithstanding, there is little traditional folk/country influence to be found on You Are My Home. “Greenhouse”, for example, sitting squarely in the middle of the album, features what I believe is credited to Brian John Mitchell as “greenhouse construction” in the liner notes, a tangle of droning, dying piano chords and other hard-to-discern elements.
The punchy “Win or Lose” follows, the record’s most aggressively straight-ahead rock song, recalling some of the late Elliott Smith’s more pissed off tunes. The song compresses the dramatic arc of build-climax-resolve, lashing out, then disappearing before you’ve had time to digest. Most songwriters stretch such concepts out, providing each stage of the song plenty of time to sink in; “You either win or lose” is the simple, hard reality here, however, and Amundson’s not going to dance around it. The title-track appears at first to bend towards traditional folk construction, riding a melancholy chord progression buffeted by Fred Lonberg-Holm’s bittersweet cello. But soon chunks of feedback unreel themselves just beneath the melody. The elongated string and feedback tones are completely distracting from the rest of the song; it’s hard to focus on Amundson’s voice as anything other than another instrument in the mix.
Throughout You Are My Home, whatever meaning the lyrics hold feels deliberately obscured, protected at every turn by the band or the singer’s own fuzzy delivery. This is where Rivulets really deviates from the norm. Even Red House Painters, whose sound I’d venture Rivulets most closely resembles, featured Mark Kozelek’s voice startlingly up front in the mix; so if I don’t know exactly what “Brockwell Park” is about, it’s not for any sonic obfuscation. But Amundson is adept at communicating his songs’ intentions regardless of how many diversions lure the listener away from literal interpretation. I mean, it’s clear at first that the gorgeous “Motioning” is a plea for a lost love to return, as lines like “I know I should be over you” and “Come back to me” indicate, but I quickly lose the thread, focusing instead on the tumbling and chiming guitar parts. The song itself evokes emotional longing just as well as, perhaps even better than, its words. Perhaps that’s what the descriptor “minimalist” means: not using less than one needs to convey meaning, but using only just as much as one needs. In that sense, Rivulets fits the bill as well as any like-minded band, Amundson steering his ship into territory where complexity doesn’t necessitate extravagance, and simplicity does not mean simple-minded.