Half-Handed Cloud: Stowaways

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.

Half-Handed Cloud


US Release: 2010-09-28
Label: Asthmatic Kitty
UK Release: import
Artist Website
Label Website

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

If space is time—and space is literally time in the comics form—the world of the novel is a temporal cage. Manuele Fior pushes at the formal qualities of that cage to tell his story.

Manuele Fior's 5,000 Km Per Second was originally published in 2009 and, after winning the Angouléme and Lucca comics festivals awards in 2010 and 2011, was translated and published in English for the first time in 2016. As suggested by its title, the graphic novel explores the effects of distance across continents and decades. Its love triangle begins when the teenaged Piero and his best friend Nicola ogle Lucia as she moves into an apartment across the street and concludes 20 estranged years later on that same street. The intervening years include multiple heartbreaks and the one second phone delay Lucia in Norway and Piero in Egypt experience as they speak while 5,000 kilometers apart.

Keep reading... Show less

Featuring a shining collaboration with Terry Riley, the Del Sol String Quartet have produced an excellent new music recording during their 25 years as an ensemble.

Dark Queen Mantra, both the composition and the album itself, represent a collaboration between the Del Sol String Quartet and legendary composer Terry Riley. Now in their 25th year, Del Sol have consistently championed modern music through their extensive recordings (11 to date), community and educational outreach efforts, and performances stretching from concert halls and the Library of Congress to San Francisco dance clubs. Riley, a defining figure of minimalist music, has continually infused his compositions with elements of jazz and traditional Indian elements such as raga melodies and rhythms. Featuring two contributions from Riley, as well as one from former Riley collaborator Stefano Scodanibbio, Dark Queen Mantra continues Del Sol's objective of exploring new avenues for the string quartet format.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.