From the Second Nature Recordings website: "The music of Old Canes is difficult to describe without sending readers down the wrong path with words like folk, indie rock, bluegrass, upbeat, and melancholy." Way to hogtie the critic, guys. That would be like describing Alien Vs. Predator without using the words sci-fi, horror, and gooey. Except that would mean having to watch AVP. Happily, Old Canes, the new project by Chris Crisci of the Appleseed Cast, avoids many of the pitfalls other musicians have fallen in when branching out into Americana -- namely that Early Morning Hymns is neither gooey nor horrific. In fact, the album's title (from the song of the same name) is actually the music's most apt catch-all. Picture a shaft of lit dust pouring through a barn window at 5 a.m., or sitting in the back of a pick-up sipping coffee in the parking lot of your local Farm 'n' Fleet. At its best, Early Morning Hymns brings it all back home.
Or in the case of the pleading "Blue Eleanor", Old Canes pile blonde on blonde. Crisci's mumbling delivery can sound vaguely like Dylan from time to time, while the arrangements suggest everyone from the Replacements to Neutral Milk Hotel. Though saxophone and trumpet share turf with bells and toy piano, the disparate textures play nice with each other. Home-recorded on half-inch eight-track, the album has a warm, crisp feel. Crisci's voice is drenched in room reverb and the kick-drum is oddly deadened, which sounds fantastic. In fact, Nathan Richardson's drums nearly steal the show on Early Morning Hymns, taking the best songs to an even higher level, and redeeming the weaker tracks. "The Song Was Right" first directed my attention to Richardson with its tension building false starts and skittering stick and cymbal work, which feel more like IDM than y'all-ternative. The inventiveness of the drums is still in service to Crisci's best writing on the record.
"The Song Was Right" features a rambling guitar figure, an organ trill like a songbird, and a simple but effective vocal melody. I'm not sure what the song is about, but I am unconcerned, intrigued by the repetition of "kings and saints" and "mothers and daughters". I don't know what most of the songs are about. Digging through the mumbles yields clues to hearts full of holes, longing, and miscommunication, but all of it is secondary to the mood and emotional impressions each song creates. Early Morning Hymns sometimes feels like a series of slight variations on the same melodic theme, and the songs live or die by their distinctions. For example, "Then Go On" is sequenced after "The Song Was Right", which is a misfortune not only because of that song's brilliance, but because "Go On" sounds more like a slow reprise than a separate song. Similarly, "Life Is Grand" suffers in comparison to its predecessor, the lovely "Both Falling Bright." The acoustic punk pairing of "Face It" and "One Day" also blurs the lines between the two songs.
Still, each song on its own can be a pleasure, and the album's brevity helps keep the consistent mood from getting too overwhelming. The subtle incorporation of various styles and influences into the mix also makes it a nice departure from the usual alt-country strum and twang. "The Song Was Right" is worth the price of admission all by itself. It'll be interesting to hear where they go from here.