[2 November 2009]
Danny Seim is most notable for his work with the indie band Menomena, a strange rock trio out of Portland, Oregon. His first recordings come from the solo-project-turned-side-project Lackthereof, and were put out on CD-R before both Menomena and Lackthereof began their association with FILMguerrero (and Barsuk) in 2004. A Lackthereof Retrospective or I Was a Christian Emo Twentysomething, then, consists of home-recorded, pre-side-project CD-R tracks from someone claiming to be both Emo and Christian. It’s not exactly the sort of thing you expect to be compiled, but if you’re thinking it’s a release for completists or fanatics only, you’d just be partly right.
Sure, we can admit right up front that there’s a certain amount of throwaway here. Some of these pieces are bedroom experimentation (musically, I mean, although more on that front later), and are, at best, insightful snapshots at an artist at work. “Miko”, for example, sounds like a way to play with some new equipment, with its forgettable beats and unaffecting vocals. “Know, Understand” presents its own sort of loveliness, but sounds like an unfinished demo. Some better mixing and some expansion and it could have been an interesting piece, but instead it’s just a minute-plus sketch.
Fortunately, most of the rest of the compilation is much more engaging. At its best, the music relies on laptop beats that are complex enough to be captivating but don’t add unnecessary complications to the songs. Seim sings intimately but not shyly (something one might anticipate from his keeping Lackthereof behind Menomena). Lyrically, he tends to tackle an ambivalence toward, or at least an ambiguity surrounding, his Christian faith. There’s a coming-of-age feel throughout; the songs have the sensibility of early spiritual questioning mixed with the trials of late and post-adolescence. Seim’s greatest strength may be his willingness to take on these issues honestly without sinking to melodrama (we spare some grace for those moments where he overdoes the emo side of things a little).
The best sequence on the albums comes with “Abstinent Dry Sex” and “Every Kind Word”. On the former track, Seim continually develops his electronic complexity as the tension in the scene rises. It starts out as a seduction song (and the male character persists in this fashion) but gradually reveals the complexity of religious abstinence in the face of insecurity, pornography, and desire. The characters need to fill an emptiness that’s not satisfied in “the plan”, but their roundabout sort of purity holds its own pitfalls and, as the title suggests, offers loopholes, with the final cry of “I’m experienced, I’m experienced!” throwing doubt on the resistance.
“Every Kind Word” sounds like a folk song, relying on a simple melody and an acoustic guitar. In this case, the vocals offer hope, seeming to praise the increase of worldly experience, but at the same time, the lyrics offer a wry cynicism: “When the trees above block out the sun ... Every kind word goes unherad / You’re well upon your way.” It’s not a demanding track, but it does offer a challenge in uncovering the sort of truth at its center. We’re left wondering how much to trust the speaker, and, even if he’s right, how much do we accept him?
These two songs, recorded four years apart, make a nice thematic consistency and musical transition, but point out an oddity of the compilation. With the songs assembled out of chronological order, it makes it difficult to sense any sort of artistic movement. That sort of project would be difficult anyway without hearing the original six albums, but it would be nice to have some sort of presenation here. The upside is that the record flows pretty steadily this way; the songs are pretty well sequenced in a strictly musical sense.
A Lackthereof Retrospective offers more than its title might suggest. It’s not an essential work, but it offers intrigue for the more general listener and shows evidence that Seim was producing quality work before most of the world knew about it. It even makes being an emo Christian compelling.