As compelling as this is as a document of faith, and despite its frenetic energy as a whole, it's hard to latch on to any one defining piece on Stowaways.
The full title of Stowaways, the new Half-Handed Cloud album, reads As Stowaways in Cabinets of Surf, We Live-out in Our Members a Kind of Rebirth. But though the working title seems to play out much longer than you'd expect, the record itself works in the opposite way. With a tracklist spanning 25 songs -- many with titles as wordy as the album's official moniker -- you might think this record is a massive musical tome.
Considering Half-Handed Cloud main man John Ringhofer is releasing his fifth record on Sufjan Stevens' Asthmatic Kitty label, you'd certainly be forgiven for making that assumption. Ringhofer, however, functions as a curious counterpoint of Stevens' own massive compositions. These two musicians surely share a love of heavy orchestration -- there's plenty of banjo, string arrangements, and tape loops on Stowaways -- and the two have a similar knack for sweet, bordering-on-precious harmonies. Ringhofer, however, unleashes his sound in frenetic, nervous bursts. Of Stowaways's 25 songs, only six crack the two-minute mark, and those just barely.
What that leaves us with is a record that refuses to sit still. Rather than making it feel disjointed, though, the album's short tracks knit into an interesting whole. This record, taken in one 40-minute sitting, has a quirky charm that is hard to ignore. Ringhofer spends much of the record openly, and guilelessly, discussing theology and his own beliefs. So it might come as no surprise that he recorded the album in the Berkeley, California church where he works, but what is surprising is how little he relies on the spacious acoustics we normally associate with churches.
Instead, the sounds here are crowded up and anxious, as if they are still bottled up inside Ringhofer. Songs like "You Flagged Us Down with A Wave" start as simple folk constructions, but terse guitar riffs and clunky piano chords quickly cut them up into sharp-angled pop songs. In other places, as on "Guy with Driftwood Skin", songs ride along on humble guitar chords, only to be thrown off the rails when Ringhofer stops the music to break the melody with awkward spoken phrases.
The way these songs stop on a dime and shift into new, disparate sounds makes Stowaways an unpredictable record. There are more straightforward pop songs to be found here, and the understated piano-pop of numbers like "The Sea Has No Face" and "Divers Divers" stand out from the pack by holding their shape long enough to be recognized. What hold all these wild musical tangents together are the themes that clearly run through the record, most of which align faith with water. Using lyrical traditions from old American hymns, and tapping into parts of Hebrew and New Testament scriptures, Ringhofer often connects God with the sea in these songs. "Angels train under water," he assures us at one point, giving an interesting twist on the water-as-cleansing imagery. All over this record, people are lost at sea, and it's clear the "You" Ringhofer is singing to is God. There's real joy and true comfort in these songs, rather than stagnant worship or brimstone fear.
But as compelling as this is as a document of faith, and despite its energy as a whole -- taken from beginning to end, this sounds like a giddy, childlike musical theater piece -- it's hard to latch on to any one piece on Stowaways. Its very construction, these brief bursts of pop, makes it too hard to truly get a hold of. Ringhofer deserves credit for packing so many thoughts into a minute of music -- and producer Daniel Smith (aka Danielson) brings out every eccentricity well -- but sometimes too much is too much. Often, the most heavily orchestrated songs drown out Ringhofer's reedy voice, and usually the shortest songs ("Hydrological Cycle" or "Concentric Groups of Mirrored Loops", for example) are the worst offenders in that department.
With so many quick pieces to this whole, when one throws you off, it sometimes takes a song or two to find the thread again. The good news is, you might forget about it five songs later, but that immediacy, that lack of space to resonate cuts both ways on this record. Ringhofer is surely a singular artist, and there's something daring in both his compositions and the subject matter he covers in them. But while you may look back on Stowaways without being able to pinpoint a glaring error, you may also be at a loss for a singular defining moment on the record.