[13 February 2003]
The attempt to convey intimacy through recorded music is a fraught, paradoxical affair. The moment of intimacy, the time in which the musician and the listener can be mutually present with the same intensity, has always either already passed or failed to yet take place. Usually, artists after this kind of communal warmth are forced to try to manufacture intimacy with their studio approach, but this too is a dicey proposition. Since actual intimacy is impossible, musicians attempt to simulate a faux intimacy by rejecting whatever is going on in mainstream pop music in favor of what seem like aural equivalents of innocence. This strategy, which manifests itself typically in a host of low-fi production techniques, gives us pleasant but awkwardly self-conscious albums like Little Wings’ Light Green Leaves.
The album features spare instrumentation (acoustic guitar, some soft drumming, some organic-sounding percussion effects) and a healthy complement of room tone. Nothing on Light Green Leaves sounds processed, least of all Kyle Field’s voice, the album’s dominant instrument. Often multi-tracked to allow him to harmonize woozily with himself, his shaky, slightly whiny voice is always loudest in the mix, even when his singing is reduced to a frail near-whisper. This trick, speaking into the mic as you would murmur into someone’s ear, subverts the whole notion of amplification, defying the inevitable distance between performer and audience, and creating the illusion of intimacy, which is always a matter of manipulation of distances: physical, psychic, or otherwise.
Though he is sometimes compared to Neil Young or Will Oldham, Field sounds like a less cranky and more contemplative J. Mascis. But the spirit of these songs have much more in common with Skip Spence’s solo work in their casual off-handed manner verging at times on self-deprecation. Like Spence, Field (who, for all intents and purposes, is Little Wings) frequently relies on sing-songy folk melodies to convey the sense of an innocence fractured but persevering. In his previous work, Field has been preoccupied with “wonder”, the miraculous nature of the simple things generally ignored in our culture, which usually celebrates proprietary (and therefore profitable) innovations in technology and fashion. The pursuit of wonder thus defined leads Field to often sing songs about natural phenomena to which no one owns exclusive rights: air, trees, water animals, and light.
This preoccupation is undeniably charming, but unfortunately Field’s pursuit of it reinforces some common but unfortunate assumptions about “innocence” and “wonder”, namely that for something to be innocent, wonderful, and simple it must be naïve and child-like. Some of Field’s off-key warbling must be attributable to his desire to appear artless and child-like, and certainly the band’s diminutive and somewhat precious name stems from this. He doesn’t come close to approaching Jonathan Richman’s worst excesses in this department (listen, for example, to Modern Lovers Live, where four of nine songs have “little” in the title, and the whole album sounds like it was recorded on the Captain Kangaroo show), songs like “Uh-Oh (It’s Morning Again)” approach that kind of nauseating infantilism. We are forced to feel like we are condescending to the music, which undermines the intimacy otherwise evoked. Or we can choose to revert to some child-like state ourselves, in which case Little Wings paves the way for our future enjoyment of Barney-style sing-alongs and Sesame Street albums.
But more often than not Field’s songs conjure up the campfire coziness he seeks without becoming at all Raffi-like. Instrumentals like the evocative “Sandbar” are persuasive arguments against guitar virtuosity, suggesting that simple melodies played humbly can be much more impressive than intricate and ornate playing. And the sparse, gentle “Look at What the Light Did Now” demonstrates that simplification need not be reduction, but can be instead a kind of elaboration, a glimpse at the infinite possibility in the slightest of natural things.
The problem with making intimacy your hallmark, though, is that you always appear reactionary. In the effort to elude mass culture anonymity, artistic decisions are forced upon you, making your real idiosyncrasies seems contrived and potentially grating efforts to appear “unique.” In the perpetual flight to the margins, you must always pretend to reject ambition, which then makes the practice of releasing records at all seem almost hypocritical. That Kyle Field is able to overcome these philosophical conundrums is a testament to the breadth of the authentic talent underlying all his apparent posturing.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/littlewings-light/