Papercuts' sound is like, well, a paper cut: It stings just enough to grab your attention, but never really gets under your skin.
It's appropriate that Jason Robert Quever called his band Papercuts, because the name pretty much describes the double-edged effect of his low intensity approach: Papercuts' hushed, understated lo-fi sound stings just enough to grab your attention, but it never really gets under your skin. On the one hand, the one-man-band's fourth album, Fading Parade, is full of small gestures that trigger more of reaction than you'd think, staying with you in the most subtle of ways. On the other hand, the San Francisco songwriter's pleasant and unassuming aesthetic rarely goes beneath the surface, as the atmospheric, often slight songs tend to fade from consciousness before they get stuck in your head. In short, Quever's music is like, well, a paper cut -- you feel it, until, all of a sudden, you don't.
So while Fading Parade initially makes an appealing, if modest, impact, it doesn't ultimately leave its mark. Drawing first blood, opener "Do You Really Wanna Know" is actually an anomaly on Fading Parade, peppier and poppier than anything else on the album. With a sense of urgency giving Quever's low-key charms a little more of an edge here, "Do You Really Wanna Know" channels the Shins, only if that band's indie-rock surrealism was reimagined as warm, fuzzy dream-pop. Through the hazy background, though, Quever gives form and texture to the song with just the right accompaniments, like when he matches gently soaring riffs to crisp, syncopated drums. It's just that whatever visceral response the leadoff number elicits becomes dulled and dissipated on the pleasant but harmless single "Do What You Will", which is more about creating a mood than making a point. So whereas "Do You Really Wanna Know" has a sense of shape and structure to it, what follows on "Do What You Will" lacks definition as nothing comes to the fore, with Quever's washed-out vocals only pushed forward by default as the droning guitars and thin rhythms oddly move back in the mix.
Too much of the time, even the best of what Papercuts have to offer on Fading Parade can't quite find a way to stand out, since the album just can't sustain enough energy to keep much momentum rolling. With a rich, resonant keyboard intro, "I'll See You Later I Guess" makes good use of its bells and whistles -- that is, until all of the elements get enveloped in a crowded soundscape where it's difficult to tell anything apart from anything else. Similarly, "Chills" starts with more thrills, like shimmering, twinkling guitars and a nice touch of strings, but runs out of steam sooner rather than later. Indeed, one might be hard-pressed to recognize the traces of Quever's earlier twang-inflected pop this time around, since Fading Parade blurs out the intricacies of his craft and saps some of its vigor, too.
Nor does it exactly help the album's deliberate pacing that there's a drowsy lull smack dab in the middle of Fading Parade. "The Messenger" and "White Are the Waves" try to introduce some texture and tension, though not enough to lift themselves out of a monochromatic monotone. Maybe it has a family resemblance to Quever's one-time collaborator Cass McCombs, but "The Messenger" can't replicate that indie troubadour's sense of drama and songwriting flair. And the waltzy downer "Wait 'Till I'm Dead" gets twisted and tangled in all the gauzy organ and gossamer guitars, all but refining itself out of existence. All in all, the blanket of dazed-and-confused fuzz becomes too overcast and even overbearing, making you numb to the heartaches and pains of Quever's forlorn love songs, rather than feeling them.
When things do pick up near the end of the album, it's more or less too little, too late. Still, "Marie Says You've Changed", especially, is a good dose of better late than never, setting itself apart by rising above of all the reverb and woozy noise. With a little bit of Belle and Sebastian to it, the track shows some bite and snap, allowing the brisk, strummy acoustic guitar and crisp rhythms a chance to define themselves more. As a result, the meticulous musical details and Quever's keen observational lyrics both shine through sharper without being buried under layers of sounds, as he sets a poignant homecoming scene, singing, "Can't decide if I belong / Standing in line / At the grocery store / With everyone I ever have known". Closing number "Charade" puts to use all of Papercuts' impressionistic moves to full effect, combining luminous, sparkling flourishes to create a sense of progression and development that's generally missing from the rest of the album. Considering the way Fading Parade wraps up, you just get the feeling that Papercuts could go a little deeper when Quever gives his songs a little more room to breathe.