[19 February 2009]
Utility should never be the primary concern of art, but still, one has to wonder—at least a little bit—about the purpose of Rustry String Deluxe, the expanded version and debut release of Portland polymath Tom Filepp as cars & trains. With the exception of handful of remixes, nothing here exists that hasn’t already been heard on both the original Rusty String and the Little Song EP, with virtually no change to the presentation. Anyone who feels the urge to immediately become a cars & trains completist can seek this release out, but it also feels a bit like a greatest-hits record by a man who still doesn’t have two full-lengths to his name.
Still, we should hope the deluxe treatment doesn’t portend a lack of creativity on Filepp’s part. Though not without its flaws, Rusty String revealed a deft hand, a crafter of soundscapes who could weave simple acoustics into electronic trickery in a way that avoided cut-and-paste impersonality, creating aural cyborgs whose sound and feeling were indistinguishable from the real thing. Not everyone can marry banjo, xylophone and drum machine into something harmonious (literally and figuratively)—let alone bring such gravely passion to his singing. As the juxtaposition of his full-length and EP reveal, Filepp is a few bad habits away from something of sharp beauty.
Chief among those bad habits: Filepp’s tendency to let earnestness take the place of craft, which leads to some sentiments so artless as to be distracting (if his music tends to overshadow his lyrics, it’s for this reason). The worst offender—while not technically his fault, though he did choose to leave it on the album, twice—is “The Sky is Clear”, featuring Anticon rapper Sole. “Oh yonder dying yellow dwarf / You fought for land and liberty / Now you taking the long siesta / With your beloved generals / Who never even wanted to be generals” is a fine enough thought, but it sounds like something that should be scrawled on a Trapper Keeper, not committed to album, where it’s painful enough to be utterly distracting (and isn’t helped a lick by Fliepp’s remix). Not that Filepp leaves the ham-handed anti-war lyrics entirely to his friends: “And All Of Us, As Well” manages the line “Smoothing out the wrinkles / Dumbing it all down / While singing / This land was made / Was made for you and me’”, which is as subtle as it is lyrical.
Though still, even these are sore thumbs, conspicuous for how much each sticks out. When Filepp turns his attention away from the political to matters personal, he finds the right notes. “Nursing 500 Broken Fingers” sees him pull off a selection of hurt metaphors and electronic drum beats, pulsing like a subway car following an aimless track, as Filepp explores the long-way home to feeling better. “The Wires From My Broken Record Player” cracks with heartbreak, with Filepp feeling just as alone with the record player on, searching fruitlessly over driving banjo and a drum machine on the verge of breaking down.
Overall, it adds up to an album of impressive potential. Filepp has the ability to continue marrying older pop and folk forms with our newer digital tendencies, picking up on a project that seems to be slowly spreading throughout North American music. We can only hope his next album arrives soon, and it allows him to grow beyond his faults and into the impressive flashes that dot this album, in either regular or deluxe incarnations.