[5 June 2014]
After big or involved projects, artists often go in the other direction with their following release and pare things down with a quieter, simpler approach. Neil Young, for example, is a classic case in point, having followed that pattern numerous times.
Similarly, multi-instrumentalist Chris Schlarb put out Psychic Temple II last year, accompanied by an ensemble of twelve musicians from various genres. It was an ambitious project, and after touring with a six-member version of the unit, Schlarb was ready for something different. Something more personal. Something, in his words, with a “more intimate, unpolished sound.”
He holed himself up in a cabin in the San Bernardino Mountains of California with nothing more than a few instruments, some recording apparatus, and an improvisatory vision—having no compositions prepared beforehand. Though Schlarb is not primarily known as a guitarist, the guitar is the dominant instrument on the four tracks he recorded during his retreat.
There’s a spirituality but also a darkness running through the collection. At times it recalls the aforementioned Neil Young, especially Young’s moody and dissonant score to Jim Jarmusch’s 1996 Dead Man film. It’s not quite as dissonant as that, but Schlarb is not one to shy away from the avant-garde and experimental. He just does it very melodically.
Making the Saint is mostly instrumental, with a peaceful yet spooky aura. The title song, at just over 19 minutes, is the longest track. Pacing is slow, with laconic and melodious fuzzed out electric guitar chords and thoughtful melody lines. Schlarb has an understanding of the importance of pauses between notes and what they can add to a composition. In such cases, the listener becomes more engaged with the song, waiting for what comes next and mentally filling in the spaces. Unfortunately, a constant backing drone, ceaselessly fading in and out like a broken refrigerator, detracts from the beauty of his playing on this track and fills in those spaces which may have been better left silent.
“Great Receiver” is the only song with vocals. No, it’s not a hymn to football players who can catch well, but presumably instead a paean to God. The title is a reversal on “Great Deceiver”, an old name for the devil. Reverent, almost whispered vocals intermingle with lonely acoustic picking until a lyrical electric guitar solo elevates things to a transcendent level.
The soothing yet vaguely unsettled mood continues with “The Fear of Death is the Birth of God”, which would not be out of place on the soundtrack of an old Western. A stark guitar figure anchors the song and adds an ominous suspense like something creeping up, while atmospheric washes of guitar float above like clouds over a parched prairie.
Schlarb wraps things up with a cover of the 1940s standard “My Foolish Heart”. A frequently covered tune, by everyone from Sinatra to guitarist John McLaughlin, Schlarb’s version is respectfully jazzy (and, of course, very mellow). His rendition is a conclusive and generally upbeat resolution to a searching, moody album.
Schlarb writes, “I recommend listening to this album on a Sunday morning before the day makes an imposition.” And it is indeed an unrushed, introspective piece of work—not music for a bright sunny Sunday, but perfect for a Sunday during a meditation retreat in a haunted monastery.