[30 September 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
To read about the origins of Saint Rich is to feel like you’re reading about a side project. Christian Peslak and Steve Marion played together in Marion’s project, Delicate Steve. On a break from tour, the two began working on material that didn’t seem to fit the Delicate Steve feel. Marion swapped out a guitar for drums, Peslak strummed out some chords, and Saint Rich was born.
The duo banged out seven songs pretty quickly, and from there developed Beyond the Drone, the debut album out now on Merge. To listen to this, though, there’s little side-project reticence or tossed-off relaxation about the album. This is a focused, intricate set, one that fittingly has been done for a year and is now seeing daylight. That sense of taking your time, of taking the long way home, informs this record on many levels.
Marion, the main force behind Delicate Steve, shaped these songs melodically, but he yields to Peslak’s honeyed voice and curious guitar phrasings to front the show here. Together the pair mesh well Americana’s dust with power-pop’s glitter, and the dingy shine they create is solid. Those musical touchstones, though, don’t create opportunity for Saint Rich to steep itself in tradition. Instead, they are springboards to the strange twists and structural shifts that can make these songs, at their best, surprising and resonant.
Early standout “Officer” shows off Peslak’s pipes immediately, as well as the clear link between his shearing guitar riffs and Marion’s off-kilter yet in-the-cut drumming. The song chugs along on angular hooks and steady percussion, but things shift unexpectedly when it opens up into a thick shimmer of sound, with keyboards, guitars, and drums soaring in step with each other. It’s a move that feels both inevitable in its sound but wholly out of left field in its delivery. Similarly, “Sorry/Sadly” starts with a sun-baked desert thump but then bottom’s out into space and re-emerges as a churning swell, injecting that thump with an urgent sweat.
Other shifts and eccentricities are delivered more slyly. Jangling electric guitar punctures holes into the strum of “Dreams”. “Black and Brown” turns the sunburst elements of these other songs on their ear, turning the crunchy guitars into something more sneering. Most memorably, “You Ain’t Worth the Night” takes classic rock hooks and lets them tumble down into the spaces of Marion’s skittering drums. In these songs, we see the band’s own personality rise up through the structures rather than imposing it on them after the fact. These songs are sun bright, to be sure, but they never forget the stand of clouds in the distance. There’s a darkness just under the surface. Sometimes, as on “Coming Home”, the band leans too heavily on the bright and song sounds too thin as a result, where more subtle moments like the pastoral folk of “Don’t Bring Me Down” sneaks its long shadow in effectively.
The twists in structure and songcraft here are so effective that other moments of more shapeless experimentation feel a bit limp in comparison. The album opens with a titular sonic introduction, a squall of feedback and transmitted voices that feels a bit too self-serious to set up the playful record that comes. Similarly, the excellently epic closer “Already Gone” is done no favors by being set up by another noise piece on “To the Sun”.
These slight missteps don’t sap the album of its charm, however. And, on Beyond the Drone, an album that seems to be digging thematically into the space between fruitful wandering and aimless drifting, setting a toe off the path once in a while is inevitable. Still, this is a solid and convincing first record from Saint Rich, proof that there’s plenty of places they go, but also that they’ve already come a long way quickly.