X looks back on ten years of Scott Garred's own little brand of musical therapy.
Do a Google search for Scott Garred, Super XX Man's alter ego, and the first thing that pops up is not a Super XX Man site, or even a Silver Scooter (Garred's other, rockier band) site. It's the website of Marylhurst University, specifically a student profile done on, yes, the same Scott Garred, once a student at Marylhurst in the department of Music Therapy. A little more research (thank you MySpace), and we can find that he's currently working as a music therapist in the maximum security wing of a hospital. And yes, this matters, because it puts the music of Super XX Man into a context that actually makes sense.
Now, typically, when you hear of someone calling their music "therapeutic", it means they're using it as a means for catharsis in some way. It's a term often reserved for the most painful, literal pieces of music, violent explosions or humble confessions that allow artists to express their darkest thoughts in ways healthier than doing harm to themselves or others. It's a term that's been applied to Nine Inch Nails, Xiu Xiu, and Jarboe, all of them artists renowned for exposing their souls to levels skirting uncomfortability.
Rather than bearing the entirety of his soul and forcing us to experience his pain along with them, Garred chooses to take those innermost thoughts and wrap them in pleasant, quiet folk songs, an approach that is likely far more suited to any location whose name includes the words "maximum security".
X is, appropriately, Super XX Man's tenth release, all of which he has released with volume numbers, tracking his recorded output (his first two demos are Volumes I and II, the EP that followed was Volume III, and so on). It also marks the tenth year of Garred's recording as Super XX Man. Combine all of these tens with the fact that the letter 'X' figures prominently into Garred's superhero pseudonym, and it's understandable that Garred should be feeling nostalgic. And so, X is created as therapy for that nostalgia, visiting the past, rethinking it, and embracing it. X consists entirely of songs that Garred has recorded before, now re-recorded with the members of Garred's touring band, including his wife and accordionist extraordinaire, Michelle.
As one might expect, the strength of the songs is often proportional to their age, with the newer ones being better developed melodically and lyrically. Opener "Collecting Rocks" (originally from Volume VI, Collecting Rocks) is a lovely little song where Garred actually sounds a bit like Conor Oberst in a mellow mood (spoken-word tangents and all), and the added vocals of Ali Wesley provide a nice, conversational counterpoint to Garred's questioning lyrics. "Usual Way" (from Volume VII, My Usual Way) is a beautiful bit of looking to God while searching for oneself, and "Grace" (which actually appears in two forms on My Usual Way) is given its most reverential treatment yet, appropriate for a song that starts out by toying with the words of a familiar hymn. The subtlety and emotional depth inherent in these songs is obvious when compared to the updates on early demos like "Hearts and Stars" and "I Can't Figure Out These Bottle Caps (I'm a Lonely Guy)" -- both of which sound like cute song ideas, but they don't exactly develop into actual songs.
Even so, it's obvious that the instrumentation added by the rest of the band has helped even the barest of Garred's song skeleton's. Despite her cheeky liner-noted label of "Polka Queen of NE Portland", Michelle Garred's accordions are just about as understated as accordions can possibly be, actually providing more subtlety than, say, Scott's experiments with recorders on previous albums. The light percussion and steady bass on the songs where they actually appear is just enough to fill out the songs without making their presence too obvious. Mr. Garred has obviously found a nice, quiet, subtle band to match the aesthetic of his songwriting.
All of this basically points to the idea that if you're one of those souls for whom listening to someone sing quietly about what he sees when he curls up into the fetal position, X will be a right fine listen. Despite the presence of a supporting cast, something that Super XX Man hasn't dealt with much in the past (at least on the studio releases), X also sounds like the best approximation of what Scott Garred has always hoped for from his music. It probably won't excite you much, but even the steeliest of souls might find themselves tapping their toes or smiling at the occasional cute turns of phrase. More aromatherapy than EST, X may not cure what ails you, but it will numb the pain a bit. Sometimes, that's enough.