[4 December 2013]
It did not take long for Father John Misty to become a Hipster Folk Icon, did it?
Maybe not, but you can’t say Josh Tillman didn’t earn it honestly. As J. Tillman, he recorded a series of minimalist, fairly bleak solo albums in the 2000s, but despite strong reviews, he remained something of a cult figure. After a brief stint drumming with the twee Fleet Foxes, Tillman gave himself the Father John moniker and struck gold with Fear Fun, an excellent, psychedelic/alt-country-tinged solo album that caught on like wildfire with those looking for a new flannel-shirted troubadour hero. His famous video for “Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings”, featuring an astounding performance by Aubrey Plaza, cemented his reputation as a Kerouac for the new age, a guy who spoke the language of Today’s Troubled Youth without sounding exploitative or condescending.
So a new album by Josh/John is a big deal, right?
Not this time. The History of Caves album, credited to Josh Tillman, is the soundtrack to a short film by Emma Tillman, a photographer who happens to be Mrs. Father John Misty. A look through Ms. Tillman’s works reveals a keen eye and great sense of composition, so even though the movie hasn’t been released as of this writing, I’m keeping my hopes up that it’s worth a look (provided the finished project transcends the pretentious mumblecore of the trailer).
Of course, since I haven’t seen it, I can’t report on how well John’s pieces work in context. Besides, my job is to let you know how the album sounds on its own. And reader, I have to admit I’m a little stumped. This is the kind of music that’s supposed to conjure words like “haunting”, “evocative”, and “mystical”, I think. But the words that keep coming to mind are “noodling”, “kind of pretty, I guess”, and “forgettable”.
Then again, the soundtrack only offers 15 minutes worth of music, all wordless. Most of the cuts feature Josh’s rustic acoustic guitar, but a few offer some keyboard overtones, and one even features drums. The mood they create is pretty much constant: pensive, slightly ominous, a bit gothic (clearly the movie has some Dark Family Secrets in store). Imagine the bluesy slide-guitar lick that accompanies your first look at the bad guy in a western (give him an eye-patch and a hand-rolled cigarette – it’s your vision, you might as well have fun with it) and tone it way, way down, and you get the idea.
That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to like on the album. Some of Tillman’s creations are quite nice. There’s no melody to speak of; the closest you get is on the closer, “Titles Theme for Boy Voices”, a pretty, overdubbed a cappella number. But Tillman knows his way around a guitar chord, and pieces like “Finish Those Cigarettes & Go to Bed” and “I Call it the Demon Tree” are pleasing on their own merits. And “Car Chase Theme” almost feels like a complete song (it’s the only one with a drumset), even though its most intriguing mystery is what kind of car-chase inspires a laid-back, strummed waltz.
But most of the soundtrack fades away even before the songs end. Put “Of Course I Live With Them” on repeat and it could accompany your massage (if you get massaged outside on a bleak fall day, that is). “Dial Tone” and “Dial Tone 2” offer brief, plucked minor-chord noodlings augmented with the occasional windy keyboard, and “Tender is the Night in Paperback” (yes, these are the real titles) gives us pretty arpeggios and an actual progression, but without melodies, the songs have nowhere to go. And then there are “News of the World” (sorry, Queen fans) and “Alternate Title Score 777”, two nearly-identical, under 60-seconds back-to-back numbers that cut off just as they threaten to conjure a mood.
So is The History of Caves worthwhile to anyone outside of the Tillman/Father John completist? Only if you need this sort of brief, vaguely foreboding backdrop in your life. I know a guy who scarfs up obscure instrumental albums to use as incidental music for the plays he directs. He might dig The History of Caves; it should nicely compliment the scene-changes for the latest David Lindsay-Abaire drama. The rest of us will do fine to wait for the new Father John Misty album—I bet that’s gonna be a doozy.