Bartell defies the singer-songwriter blueprint in many ways, but damned if this album doesn't hit the spot about 12 ways to Sunday nonetheless.
It is apparently very easy to be a singer-songwriter; there are a lot of them, and more every day. All you have to do is have some kind of a scruffy touseled look (men and women both), a good-enough voice (women, sadly, have to have better voices than men, or they will get more harsly criticized on this score), and copy the 700 million singer-songwriters who have come before you.
But it is much harder to be a good singer-songwriter, and extremely hard to be very good at it. So I'm kind of shocked at the fact of Shane Bartell's existence. On the face of it, he shouldn't be all that good -- his tempos are kind of glacial, his voice is mostly Jeff Buckley-ish (my wife hears Alex Chilton, but she hears Alex Chilton everywhere) but he rarely soars up into the stratosphere, and he doesn't have any kind of pretty-boy looks. But damned if this album doesn't hit the spot about twelve ways to Sunday nonetheless.
He has a trio of advantages off the bat here. The first one is that he's a Texas guy, so he has some credibility when he ventures into alt.country territory by slathering steel guitars all over the place. His twang isn't the only thing he has going on, but it comes out at the right moments -- "Stars Burn Out (I)" and its apparent companion piece "Long and Short (II)" both really bring out the Lone Star signifiers in his lovely voice.
Another advantage is the fact that he built up a huge cult audience in Portland, which is a great place to be a cult artist. Doing your time in a place like that can really help you find your own voice. I just really like his lyrics. He's good at the simple stuff. There's a lot of resonance in country-influenced stuff like the opening of "Breaking the News": "Right away I know / Before the words come over the phone / Softer than silence as it slowly cracks / Please forgive the sudden heart attack". But he can also get fancy and name-droppy on us too, as he shows in "Harris Park": "But for now I'll just lay low / Mark Kozelek on the stereo / Talking till dawn about your boyfriend". (Been there, my brother, been there times one million.)
But the main advantage Bartell has here is his choice of Lars Göransson as producer. The textures here are much richer and more interesting than in just about any other singer-songwriter albums I've heard here. Göransson (who has worked with Blondie and the Cardigans) knows how to showcase Bartell's voice while still providing plenty of other interesting stuff for us to groove on.
Actually, now that I think of it, a lot of this stuff probably comes from Bartell himself. His tenure in Cling, an Austin dreamgaze band, gives him a lot of drone-buzz guitar tendencies, which come in nicely to break up the slow tempos -- "Breaking the News" would be maybe dead boring except for the slashing noises that show up everywhere. And the nine-minute closer, "Almost Perfect", uses space and patience early on, using gentle piano and acoustic guitar to set its own stage for the sturm-and-drang power chords that come in exactly at the five-minute mark. Bartell's overdriven solo that follows is metallic and heartfelt and pretty, until it gets overwhelmed by soaring synths and strings.
So yeah, he's one to watch for, and to listen to. Repeatedly.