Carter Tanton has quietly built an impressive resume over the past few years. Though this is his second proper solo record (He released the solid Birds & Rain in 2005), Tanton has found plenty of success. His band Tulsa released the EP I Was Submerged to critical acclaim, and Tanton has played a big role in Marissa Nadler’s recently released eponymous record; plus he’s a member of another great band in Lower Dens.
Tanton is all over the place, clearly, but now that he’s focused back on his own work, he’s given us Freeclouds, a record that is as much a follow-up for Tulsa as it is for Tanton himself. His former band broke up when label and legal problems kept them from putting out a follow up to I Was Submerged. That back story, however, doesn’t hang over this record so much as inform Tanton’s dedication. Freeclouds doesn’t sound frustrated or fatigued by time in the least. In fact, it feels quite the opposite — cut loose, independent, and confident in its sound, a record that recognizes worry while also working against it.
As with Tulsa — and Lower Dens, and to some extent his guitar work with Nadler — there’s plenty of atmospheric haze on Tanton’s new record. However, he doesn’t dip lazily into nostalgia like so many other gauzy acts. Tanton’s sound is instead a brilliant synthesis of influences, the kind that yields something uniquely his, the kind of record that comes out of a lifetime love of music and a wide-open sonic palate. Freeclouds references, both in title and over the course of the album, David Bowie’s “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”, and there’s some of Bowie’s space-pop eccentricities floating around these songs. But there’s also a healthy dose of acts that sound nothing like Bowie. While “Fake Pretend”, which offers a haunting back and forth between Tanton’s bittersweet lilt and the airy keen of Marissa Nadler’s voice, is fuzzy and thick with space-aged keyboards, riding on a folk sway instead of the jagged edges of Bowie’s (or anyone else’s) experimental pop.
It juxtaposes nicely with the cleaner shimmer of opener “Murderous Joy”. Tanton’s voice, drenched in reverb, calls out over acoustic guitars and shuffling drums. Its sound is both bright and worn around the edges. “Give me just a little time”, he pleads, and it’s time he wants to win us over. But it’s too late; the tune has already worked its magic. As with the beautiful “Gauze of Song”, where Tanton sings of a time when he can “wrap my head in a gauze of song”, he channels a less deathly version of Townes Van Zandt. This isn’t to say he apes country-folk tradition, but there’s such a genuine comfort found in music, in the act of playing and singing, that you’re likely to recall Van Zandt and others who clung to that comfort as long as they could.
In fact, one of Tanton’s great charms is avoiding all-encompassing sadness here. The songs are bittersweet, no doubt — Hear the teary lap-steel floating behind “Gauze of Song” — but they’re never self-pitying, always rooting around for hope. Tanton twists the bleak “Saturday” — written by late Sparklehorse frontman Mark Linkous — into a bleary-eyed sunburst, a lazy but yearning move to the light. “In Knots” finds Tanton mixed up, this song more lost in its haze than any other, but the faint folk tune whips itself into a modest country tapper at the end, propelling itself forward even as is seems to have no destination. Tanton also smartly avoids getting bogged down in mid-tempo swaying. He cracks it open on the fuzzed-out power-pop of the excellent “Horrorscope”, and at the end of the record, he wipes away all the layers for the glimmering, clarion-clear “Pitch Blue Tent”. The song acts as a bookend with “Morderous Joy”, a calm port on the other side of all these sweet squalls for our “wild eyed boy” to take stock of the journey of Freeclouds.
As adroitly as Tanton handles everything from pop to folk to rock music here, and his impressive layering and production, there are occasional missteps. “Landlines” is probably the biggest one, as it slips too fat into the electro-pop side and doesn’t find terra firma quite as well as these other songs. “Future Sounds” is similarly undone (though not as entirely) by overdone drum programming that distracts from Tanton’s fragile vocal performance.
These moments, though, are just new sounds that don’t feel as complete as the pitch-perfect ones around them. Freeclouds is an impressive set start to finish, and one of the most satisfying pop records you’re likely to hear this fall. In lieu of cashing in on trends, or indulging flash-in-the-pan fascinations, Tanton has taken a lifetime of influences, learned to understand them, and meshed them into his own new sound. For all his successes before now, this is where the wild-eyed boy comes into his own.