The problem with artists releasing musical things together in quick succession is that they run the risk of delivering homogenous products. Not so for Names, the creative vehicle driven by Boston-based Brian Barth. Barth saw some action in the folk scene then switched to penning his own songs in later 2012. The folk elements are omnipresent in both albums (more in He Downright Up and Left Us than Golem) but so are the experimental endeavors once Barth went solo.
Golem is primarily Barth exploring the possibility of electronic equipment to make music, though collaborator Callie Peters offers up cello talent on the tracks "North" and "Best." The electronics are produced by a MicroKorg and sample triggering by Renoise. Four tracks and less than 20 minutes long, Golem is a sad, sometimes dissonant creation. The barrenness of "North" is particularly striking with its dejected cello scraps finding their way through nebulous electronic hums. Barth's voice is plaintive, kind, but unsuited for the emotional catharsis "North" achieves. The next track, "House," doesn't fare well, with samples of some guy with an accent describing nature over a inch of crunching and crinkling artificial sounds. It feels formless and pointless.
Luckily Barth picks himself up with the next track, "Beast," and engaging sci-fi soundtrack in miniature, warped loops, ray gun sound effects and some close encounters of the third kind in music. It's far more dynamic then the previous two tracks, more substance, but still feels like a bummer despite the energy. This is reinforced with "Best," appropriately named. Here is where sadness revolves into more bearable melancholy. Structured more like a hip-hop song, the cello is key here and Barth finally figures out how to apply his voice to music. Good stuff, joyful without being histrionic, heavy beats and there's some nice twinkling stuff here. I think it was partially inspired by Fun, which makes sense, but is also sort of depressing because I really hate that band. If they modeled their music in the style of "Best" I'd be much more inclined to enjoy them.
Now, Golem doesn't leave the strongest impression on a listener, which may explain the power of He Downright Up and Left Us. Superior to his former release in every way, Barth trades in experimental tendencies for a loner-folk sound and it totally works.
Production is out there and every sound feels like it's taking up more space than it should. This doesn't create congestion but rather a distortion of acoustics. The guitar and piano don't mesh and by nature of their friction they totally fit. Barth's voice finds some good fits on songs like "Screen" and "Moonshiner" when he lets his voice skitter across halting chord structures and not too much else. There's the occasional studio effect of voice overlap, sound delays and some backwoods droning. In fact there are some fairly intense moments that remind me of Henry Flynt.
Lyrically, it's whatever. The imagery fits with the rustic guitar strums, but if you take the music away it just sounds like some dude wrote a few poems about farming and living off the country. "The Moat," however, is an excellent example of what Barth is able to achieve. The best song on the album, its tone is decidedly more oppressive, with cymbals crashing along a metronomic guitar line while Barth piles foggy voices atop one another. And then there're the lyrics: "We let the cheap-seats sell, turn the moat to a well/And let the blood go, what's bleeding?/And if our ship starts tacking, star-crossed we are lacking/A feeling not fleeting." Clever word play, striking metaphors; I would've liked to hear more of that.
Anyway, He Downright Up and Left Us is a fantastic experience. Frank and forthright, eerie in its complicity, gentle in nature, it does a far better job of cultivating an atmosphere of loneliness than Golem does, even without a cello. My vote is for Barth to stick with this sound for a while before experimenting again but what do I know.
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