Swiftly-recorded debut by Theodore frontman's new band is spirited, but heavy on repetitive iconography.
In Barry Hannah's short story "Water Liars", the 33-year-old narrator tries to get his head around his wife's sexual exploits of years before by taking a fishing trip with his buddy. On the pier, the titular geezers spin tall tales out of the raw material of the river's history, from ghosts of Indian kings to perch caught with bare hooks. The storytelling session ends when one troubled storyteller slips into autobiography, describing the night he followed the sound of a ghost and found his daughter having sex. When he's exiled for failing to play by the rules, the narrator befriends him, a kindred spirit "crucified by the truth".
On Phantom Limb, Water Liars frontman Justin Kinkel-Schuster's narrators have a fair bit in common with the water liars and a fair bit in common with the narrator and his new friend, crucified by truth. Like the stories of Hannah's water liars, these songs are pieced together from a small set of recurring details. Parents, lovers, God, and, of all things, wallets are among the few motifs that power Kinkel-Schuster's swampy brand of old, weird Americana. But these are big fish tales meant to evoke hurtful truths. The parents are demanding and untrustworthy throughout, the lovers generally not much better, and God a distant taskmaster. The wallets? Well, they're just asking to be stolen or removed of their contents, sometimes by those same parents and lovers.
This minimal, repetition-heavy approach may be a result of Phantom Limb's down and dirty origins. Kinkel-Schuster, frontman for St. Louis quartet Theodore, recorded these nine tracks with drummer/producer Andrew Bryant in a mere three days, using one microphone (not in single takes, it should be noted). Initially assumed to be demos for a new Theodore album, they were put aside by the label until Kinkel-Schuster pushed for their release as the debut of a new steady project with Bryant. The off-the-cuff nature of the project is reflected down to the band name; early press materials indicate a last-minute name change to Water Liars from Phantom Limb, which stuck as the album title.
As for the music, the spontaneous approach grants Phantom Limb a comfy simplicity and familiarity, even for those who haven't heard a note of Kinkel-Schuster's other work. In fact, the album represents a noticeable stylistic shift toward the basic and universal for the songwriter in both lyrics and form. "Rest", "Short Hair", and "Whoah Back" all turn on evolving folk- and blues-informed repetitive phrases. "Rest" sits comfortably in the pop-folk middle ground once shared by My Morning Jacket and the Shins, the lyrics a matched set of pleas for rest posed to father, mother, savior, and true love. "Short Hair" is the stomper of the set, a general list of the ways "they got you by the short hair".
On the Crazy Horse-channeling "Whoah Back", the narrator pushes his girl away with the excuse "I won't be here long", begs her to return with the plea "I love you and I'm still your man", and simultaneously grapples with quitting his band, the promise of redemption through Christ, and parental neglect. It takes an admirable economy of words to cover so much territory in two-and-a-half minutes, even moreso given how many of those words are "whoah" and "back" (as in "Whoah back, girl / Let go my hand / Whoah back, girl / Let go my hand"). But these simple, non-specific conceits also make you wonder if Kinkel-Schuster is simply mixing and matching evocative folk rock clichés to suit the chord changes.
This isn't the case throughout. Like "Rest", "Dog Eaten" juxtaposes parental betrayal with romantic love, but marks it with singular images like "I was an owl's ghost / Who died on the side of the road" and a lovely chorus that pins life's absurdities on blood that "does what it pleases / And there ain't much more to say". But this level of detail is something of an anomaly on the album.
One can't fault Kinkel-Schuster and Bryant for taking pride in these bare-bones songs, hashed out quickly on a lark. Their simplicity makes for a good first impression, and the enthusiasm is palpable in the performances. But by banking so heavily on tried-and-true images, they leave things too open-ended, too dependent on the listener's personal baggage to give life to these collections of tropes. On the whole, Phantom Limb is slightly too much water liar story, not quite enough crucifixion by truth.