Cyclops Reap was originally supposed to be an archival release. Tim Presley, the guy who records as White Fence, had tons of songs from the past few years that didn’t make it onto records, so he figured he’d collect them into a new release. A funny thing happened, though. New songs started to come to him.
Well, okay, for a guy as prolific as Presley this isn’t all that funny. Or surprising. But Cyclops Reap, an album of fresh material, is a welcome addition to Presley’s ever-growing discography. It might not reinvent the formula much, but it does refine and sharpen – in its best moments anyway – the nostalgic hiss-pop Presley thrives in. It’s an album of subtly intricate layering, but it doesn’t revel in meshing parts together. Instead, elements stand out, separate from each other, and in that way highlight of the isolated tension in Presley’s singing.
Take opener “Chairs in the Dark”, for instance. The tune’s a dusty, dreamy bit of Byrds-esque pop that glides on watery chords and lilting keyboards, but a twanging guitar fill breaks it wide open only to disappear. “Pink Gorilla” is a livelier bit of power-pop, charging ahead but then confused and tangled – in the best ways – by conflicting, crunchy guitar phrasings. “To the Boy I Jumped in the Hemlock Alley” is a bittersweet folk-pop tune at its core, but it’s rendered tense and dissonant by clashing lap steel with high keys and edged riffs. In each case here, we have singular elements that are in and of themselves tame, sweet even, but they’re made sharp and grinding by toppling over each other.
The effect is interesting, but also necessary. White Fence’s sound isn’t quite as desiccated as it was on last year’s Family Perfume records, but they still live in an analog dream, reliving a past they were never a part of, borrowing on our love of old sounds to create their own long shadow. Presley is hardly the first act to want to sound old, even classic, or to borrow heavily from his influences, but it is a hurdle to get over here. It helps that Presley’s melodies have gotten much tighter – see “Pink Gorilla” and “Beat” – and he also makes a point of breaking out of his private, home-recorded setting. When he sings of “clear open skies” on the excellent “Make Them Dinner at Our Shoes”, you feel the release, the freedom in getting out into larger spaces. Presley’s skill here comes in making personal (as in made on his own) recordings avoid sounding insular.
That skill comes in the finest moments of Cyclops Reap, though other moments find him retreating back to the tape-hiss and skronky tunes that do sound cut off from an audience. The eccentricity of “White Cat” feels slight in comparison to better built songs elsewhere, while “New Edinburgh” loses any immediacy in its charge by getting buried in treble-bleached guitar tones. “Only Man Alive”, Presley’s quietest ballad here, is an interesting entry, but also sounds mostly like his attempt to sound like Leonard Cohen. And he does, but he’s so much better when he sounds like himself. Cyclops Reap has moments of self-assurance, moments that push Presley into new territory, territory both musically stronger and emotionally revealing than past albums. So while it’s great to hear those surprises, the moments when he retreats back to the tape-hiss – a sound he never hid behind before but pushed through – don’t disappoint so much as they give us exactly what we expect.