[24 June 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Jason Narducy is currently the bass player in rock music. He’s played with Liz Phair and Robert Pollard, he’s the touring bassist for Superchunk now, and he’s in Bob Mould’s band. But, in addition to being an excellent member of these bands, he’s more than just another guy in the band. In the mid-‘90s, he fronted the way undersold Verbow, a big, lush rock band who were known for including Alison Chesley’s cello into their booming sound. The focus on Chesley’s cello, though, made it feel like a gimmick when, in practice it was anything but. The band’s two albums, Chronicle (produced by Mould) and White Out, as well as Woodshed, which Narducy and Chesley recorded on their own, are pop gems one and all. Epic dropped Verbow after 2000’s White Out, the band split soon after and, aside from a short run in a new band called Rockets Over Sweden, Narducy has stayed out of the frontman spot.
Thankfully, Split Single is a triumphant return to the front of the stage for Narducy. It’s not a spotlight easily earned, considering he recruited Spoon/Divine Fits frontman Britt Daniel to play bass and Jon Wurster of Superchunk, the Mountain Goats, and Bob Mould to man the drums. Of the three, Narducy has probably the least name recognition, but Fragmented World presents no egos, just a set of muscled power-pop and rock songs that put Narducy’s honeyed voice, tight hooks, and perfect pop sensibilities front and center and bolster them with some serious power.
But the album, despite its immediate energy, is also one of patience. “Waiting for the Sun” opens with Wurster’s understated tom work, some watery keyboard rundowns, and the skipping thump of Daniel’s bass. It’s a song that builds atmosphere. Swells of strings shadow Narducy’s voice as he pulls on his phrases, struggling to say something out loud, as thoughts are “Going round in my head, / Going round in my head.” That the phrasing here conveys the confusion so well is just one of Narducy’s subtle tricks, as the jangling guitar kicks in for the verse and you, like him, feel the hope of a sun coming out, of some warmth and clarity emerging. “Last Goodbye” is a bigger sound, but has a same sort of patience. It mixes tumbling keys with faint backing vocals, along with more strings, scraping out hazy space around the trio, making a bittersweet and catchy tune something more epic. It has a sort of cosmic space that’s hard to pull off and maintain tension, but Narducy’s full-throated howl on the choruses drives home the need at the center of the song.
Moments like this on Fragmented World are quiet risks, ones that don’t immediately cash in on the propulsion of Wurster’s drums or the R&B thump of Daniel’s rhythmic sensibilities. In fact, there are moments here that don’t sound at all like either player’s other work. That move away from the expected, and towards Narducy’s own lush musical vision, makes the moments where the band blows it out all the more effective. “Monolith” digs into the turf, the mix focused on Daniel and Wurster and they deliver a clawing, buzzing sprint, which lets Narducy pile on distorted guitars in the chorus. The title track brightens the mix, somewhere between fuzz and jangle, and if it sways a bit more it doesn’t lose its energy.
Narducy sifts through both the past and the stuff it has left around him on these songs, and there’s wistfulness to the way he stretches out in the verses here. “I stared too long at these pictures of you,” he admits at one point, before the chorus busts up the nostalgia. Big choruses and big hooks, especially on late-album standout “Love Is All” don’t entertain the romanticized past so much as they confront it, they raise the questions behind all these pictures and fragments. And so these songs don’t wallow or navel-gaze and, instead, make grand galvanizing statements. “Who needs God, I’ve got you,” he says on “Love Is All”, and if it reads like overstatement it doesn’t sound like it on record, it sounds like revelation. And that, in the end, is what Fragmented World is about. Revelations and self-confessions found in the everyday. It’s fitting that, despite the title, these songs are never busted up or cracked. They are whole, expansive, sweet songs, meshing the talents of the three players without treading old ground. That album title, then, is not a destination or an endgame, it’s a problem to solve. Narducy and company provide the solution in these great rock songs.