Little Wings' new album is soft (of course) and echoes with organic, low-fi beauty (of course).
Kyle Field, the musician and surfer behind Little Wings, has been around for a while now, though you might not recognize his name. Like artists such as Karl Blau, he's among the Great Unrecognized of the American indie scene -- sophisticated musicians with a workmanlike DIY ethic and a small (though you suspect good-naturedly loyal) following. Soft Pow'r, the group's latest release, will do nothing to turn away those long-time fans and, with luck, should alert some newcomers to the hushed wonder that this band can spin with such seeming ease.
The area around Portland and Olympia, in Oregon, must be one of those friendly, community-minded places -- like Bergen, in Norway -- where Music is the guiding principle. Above commerce, above bourgeois concerns like record labels. So the fact that Little Wings' latest CD is being released on Rad, a new subsidiary of Marriage Records (instead of Field's longtime home at K Records) isn't as important as the fact that a bunch of K Records/Olympia folk help out. The most well-known, now, is Jona Bechtolt of YACHT, but everyone from the label's head (Curtis Knapp) to Adam Forkner (of White Rainbow) pitch in. Like any self-respecting West Coast homespun-indie label, Rad's offering craft-y gear like hand-sewn patches and painted skateboards emblazoned with artwork creating a fantasia around its teardrop-shaped logo. But for a family-style everybody-pitch-in, Soft Pow'r still feels like an overwhelmingly personal affair, as hushed and personal as a confession.
Little Wings' songs are understated and decidedly low fi, but they're by no means sparse. Atmospheric layers of paino, keyboards, guitars, and brushed percussion provide a varied accompaniment for Field's meandering vocals. Songs are often static musically, and Field's melodic lines don't always lead to a dramatic conclusion, just as often wandering back the way they came -- which just means you've got to have patience for this kind of slow, covered music to really appreciate it. The patience pays off, though: "Warning", for instance, showcases the beauty and effortlessness of Field's surf-washed voice. As he rises and falls into his head voice and then back out, the song takes on the repetition of a meditative chant.
As expected from the band, a dominant feeling of gloom hangs over Soft Pow'r -- beautiful gloom, but gloom nonetheless. There are hints of Jose Gonzalez in Field's washed-up baritone, the inconsolable melancholy of it on "Gone Again"; when he sings "I miss you so much", you believe the emotion's real. And "Saturday", entirely wrapped up in its own sorrow, builds a whole song out of making the title sound just like "sadder day".
Things get a bit more experimental, ethereal, cerebral on the last couple of tracks, which branch out into a free jazz-influenced impression of something simultaneously sedate and unhinged -- difficult to describe. Suffice to say "Beep About"'s representative: the vocal harmonies don't move where you think they're going to, as a small dissonance evokes an angry car horn. This is songwriting with a clear sense of atmosphere, place, and direction.
In all, Soft Pow'r represents another small-scale but still noteworthy achievement for Kyle Field and his band. Soft and contemplative, the album still manages to showcase a group of talented musicians working together with a real collaborative spirit. If all Rad's releases are this organic and pleasing, the small label should be a great success.