[27 April 2010]
Why is it that the musicians who have had some past tie to Sufjan Stevens are the ones who often seem to most blatantly evoke his singular brand of quirky chamber pop? Maybe it’s that his masterful command of that ramshackle-yet-nuanced aesthetic invariably rubs off on others’ own independent work but likewise leaves a lot to live up to. Many of these, like Berkeley’s Half-Handed Cloud, are in fact on Stevens’ own Asthmatic Kitty imprint, but haven’t managed to leave the lasting impression that their flagship artist has.
Essentially the conduit of John Ringhofer, who has appeared on several of Stevens’ past projects, Half-Handed Cloud’s albums play something like scrapbooks of sometimes inspired but often underdeveloped ideas. Granted, today’s DIY climate legitimizes this sort of scattershot collage as the real thing. It’s hard to say, though, whether the many confections that he spirals through like a game of 46-track pickup on Cut Me Down & Count My Rings really amount to anything in their present form, or for that matter would even work as more fully fleshed out songs if pushed further. It’s possible that the way he flips through songs like disorganized index cards—seemingly looking for just the right one, but never settling on anything for than a minute or two—is perfectly suited to the ideas themselves, fragments that work best as fleeting bits of confetti.
Not that the album feels particularly brevitous—at nearly the full capacity of an 80-minute compact disc and more than half that number of tracks, words like ‘playful’ and ‘lack of focus’ start to feel like understatements. While it’s important to consider that this is basically a lengthy compilation of tracks from somewhat disparate non-album releases throughout the band’s history, dating back to 2000, it nevertheless raises questions about this material’s listenability. Especially presented in such numbers, these pieces frequently become too nagging and yet at the same time remain overly slight, in fact all the more the former because of the latter. Ultimately, it ends up putting into perspective how important it is to take these songs in small doses—they’re not really suited to such a massive collection, in other words.
It’s hard, though, to rag on Ringhofer for what is, at least on a song-by-song level, a clearly conscious and intentional execution of a stylistic choice. It is what it is, and that being said, plenty of these songs shine with little bits of fancifully catchy pop, wrapped in pithy splendor and certainly pleasant in the moment.
Starting with opener “You Call Yourself Our Shepherd”, the first bunch of tracks all involve shepherd-and-sheep imagery which at least temporarily ground the lyrical content. Given the placement at the beginning, lines from the perspective of sheep needing a shepherd around to help out “if we wander off the track” beg to be interpreted as mission statements concerning Ringhofer’s role in the epic, slip-slidey journey he is about to take the listener on. “You Call Yourself Our Shepherd” also provides one of the best hooks of the album over its chorus, while the track’s reemergence in the form of a reprise ten tracks later puts the same repeating “You’re our shepherd…” lyric over a winding, dreamy guitar figure that congeals surprisingly well. This first act, drawn from the I’m So Sheepy EP, makes for the most compelling and focused music found on this collection.
Little clusters of thematically linked songs continue to emerge as the tracks’ original sources change, such as a certain focus on bees about midway through. The Sufjan Stevens comparison gets pushed forth by the fact that Half-Handed Cloud also frequently weaves in religious allusions in a similar tone to him, such as in “Ten Commandment Tombstone” and “Isaiah 49”, and even gets the man himself to contribute some of his trademark spiraling flutes in several spots. In general, it’s nice to hear the instrumental groundwork periodically shift away from ever-present bouncing monochromatic two-note piano chords, a welcome change which occurs to great results on the gloriously droning “He’s Not the Swindler We Are” and the more inventively structured “Finding”—a lilting bit of pop perfection that adheres to itself better than most everything else here.
The problem one encounters with Cut Me Down and Count My Rings is that Half-Handed Cloud’s brand of flitting, oh-so-cute songs doesn’t really work on such a macro level, and yet at the same time the songs here rely upon a certain need to be joined—locally, at least—with those around them, as if in medley or as part of a suite. Perhaps this indicates that they should have been left on the various original EPs and collections they were initially drawn from and ideally suited towards, instead of all thrown together in this overwhelming set. Logistically, of course, this collection is a bit more convenient, even if fundamentally flawed. It’s best to absorb it at one’s own discretion—and if you feel a headache coming on for whatever reason, better to steer clear altogether.