As captivating as this record is, one wonders how much more effective it might be if we could hear all of the words.
Sometimes beauty can be born out of spontaneity. The explosive power of inspiration, when harnessed quickly, will often yield the most exciting art. Overworking a piece can kill its energy. On the flipside, art can also be rushed. From a songwriting standpoint, sometimes it's better to flesh out an idea so that it might reach its full potential. Low Skies' newest EP I Have Been to Beautiful Places is a pretty good example of how quick delivery can work for and against the artist.
Originally conceived as a demo, this EP was recorded live to 2-track over a 72-hour period last year. The music is a mixed bag of country, blues, and formula-free rock 'n' roll. It's even slightly jazzy: drummer Jason Creps frequently strays from the kick/snare/fill routine, choosing instead to grace each tune with loose rhythms and tom-tom-emphatic beats. The result is almost tribal, which fits, considering how primal are the emotions on this recording.
If you listen to I Have Been to Beautiful Places as a collection of five stand-alone tracks, what you'll hear is a trade-off between moments of greatness and stretches of slipshod and slightly self-indulgent jamming. It's similar to Wilco's A Ghost is Born in that respect. Unlike Wilco's latest, however, which is stylistically all over the place, Low Skies have created a single piece that -- while not always coherent in sound -- is coherent in concept. I recommend listening to Beautiful Places from start to finish, like you'd watch a film. Divided, these tracks lose impact, but united, the inconsistency makes sense.
With this release, Low Skies have brought us a musical representation of the anti-hero -- the ex-con, the lone gunslinger, the sullied cool cat. For this man, heartbreak is a common occurrence, and it don't mean nothin' anymore -- it's a mosquito bite in the grand scheme. Do you want to go toe-to-toe and compare scars? Our man in black will win that one hands down. This is someone for whom death and tragedy are a way of life -- a given. And rather than cry about it, he takes another shot and keeps on trucking.
As he enters your local bar, the opening to lead-off track "Five's Gone Quiet" accompanies him. The slow shuffle hits hard. The vocals slur through tales of a lady left behind: "Now she's used / But she used to be mine". This is easily the most solid tune on the record. Yes, it is the catchiest, but it's also the most focused. The beat is loud and steady. The tone says approach with caution.
"New Deal", the second track, goes the other way -- an eight-minute black cloud that even Jeff Tweedy might find too meandering and depressing. It nevertheless succeeds in invoking a tortured atmosphere. This is the dark heart of our protagonist -- the side he doesn't want you to see. It's the weakness, the breakdown-in-waiting, struggling to get out through cracked wails and screams. Perhaps the nakedness of the track is what makes it so hard to digest, like watching your father cry.
Thankfully, on "Pull It Over", singer Chris Salveter's confident delivery, over bluesy guitar riffs, signifies the return of our hero's calm, cool, and collected exterior. What pushes this track from good to great is the ambient organ lurking throughout. It fills the air with reverence. The barroom has become the church, and Salveter has become the preacher.
By the time "Ready to Be Done" rolls around, our man is a bit on the drunk side; while his subject matter is mired in doom, at least his melodies are a bit brighter. Creps moves to the toms as Salveter's chorus rings equally of alt-country and old school Brit-pop.
Perhaps it should have ended there, because the last track, "Funeral Pew", greets us from a state of total inebriation. Listening to it, one wonders if the members of Low Skies slept at all through the 72-hour spawning of this EP. And did they perhaps record the songs in the order that they appear? This final track reeks of sleep deprivation. It's as if the band gathered up all the loose ends of the previous tracks and thought it would be a good idea to strew them around a song all of their own. The result is about what you'd expect: it's all over the place, much like our imaginary character might be after six shots of tequila. Not only are the lyrics hard to grasp, there doesn't seem to be much of a melody -- half-spoken lines and sloppy falsettos waver over regurgitated, noisy guitar hooks.
It's fitting. We began sober and solid. And now we end in a drunken mess. I don't know if this was purposeful, but it does give the listener a sense of journey. Unfortunately, the accuracy of my conceptual imaginings remains to be seen. Salveter's wicked vocal swagger may be able to channel Jeff Buckley, Bono, Morrisey, and even Thom Yorke, but the words still come out blurry. This could be down to the recording methods, but it is nevertheless a shame. As captivating as this record is, one wonders how much more effective it might be if we could hear every word of each dark tale. Or perhaps it's the mystery of it all that keeps us listening over and over again.