Half-Handed Cloud: Thy Is a Word and Feet Need Lamps

[26 April 2005]

By Justin Cober-Lake

I could say that Half-Handed Cloud (John Ringhofer) does what he does better than anyone else. While that might be true, I’d be lying by omission if I didn’t add that I don’t know anyone else who does quite what he does. On Thy Is a Word and Feet Need Lamps, what he does is gather many instruments (toy and otherwise) and sound-producing devices and blend them musically into songs that, combined, last less than 30 minutes.

He sounds at home on Asthmatic Kitty, where artists like Sufjan Stevens and Liz Janes also provide an experimental take on folk music. But where the others (especially Stevens on 2003’s Greetings from Michigan) carefully orchestrate and arrange their numbers, Ringhofer’s tunes sound as if they’ve been produced by a hyperactive child with too many objects in his room. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, and multiple listens reveal that the songs, while short and even internally choppy, have been assembled with care (possibly by our wild child’s parent before Christmas).

Ringhofer’s tenor compliments the music perfectly, which is to say that it’s odd. He sounds concerned less with accurate pitch and more with producing throat-based sounds that fit the general aesthetic. His voice stays a little too steady to be a warble, and a little too thin to be a croon. Given the horns, strings, borrowed marimba, and “doppler effects” going on behind him, Ringhofer feels no more out of place than the bearded-lady at a freak show—sure, she’ll get your attention, but they are weirder things to gawk at.

That voice is vital to Half-Handed Cloud, though, because Ringhofer’s a storyteller. On this album, his tracks revisit Biblical tales, usually the grossest, darkest, or most scatalogical ones you can come up with (or at least that a more Biblically-well-read person could). “Let’s Go Javelin!” recounts the story of Phineas’s killing of an Israelite man and Midianitish woman who had improperly gotten to know each other. It’s a strange story, and the kind that makes you wonder how you ever forgot it, but Ringhofer makes it even weirder (and more memorable) in his rendering. If you couldn’t guess from the song title, there is some humor here. Ringhofer describes the Israelites who were marrying outside of their group as “getting joined up, and Siamesed” and the woman of the story as “the daughter of the bad guys’ president.” Death by javelin-stabbing sounds like this: “Owwee Owwee Owwee!”

And then Ringhofer leaves the tale, with absolutely no application or interpretation (beyond the fact that a re-telling is always already an interpretation). From there, we just zip immediately into “Ezekiel’s Bread”, the story in which the Israelites are told, “Gather up your fuel / From the lieu / Make your bread over / Human poo”. In this rendition, the tale’s backed by nervous cellos and scattershot drumming and horns and a harmonica and at one point a piano playing the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul” (but that last only happened when I tried to find the fecal fuel story online—I momentarily thought it was a brilliant mash-up before I realized the song was coming from some religious website; just a note for you experimental Christian DJs out there…).

So it’s kind of like church, because there are all these Bible stories; but it’s kind of like junior-high band, because too many instruments simultaneously are playing something somewhat-related; and kind of like college Astronomy, because sometimes I don’t think anyone knows what the h-heck is going on. At any rate, it’s an experience—praise the Lord and pass the moonshine.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/halfhandedcloud-thyisaword/