Monday, August 20, 2007

The Underpainting

The Underpainting is the brainchild of Mr. Brian Michael Roff, who has regaled us before with his backing band The Deer but who takes on a somewhat new guise here with the help of various friends on guitar, drums, viola, “singing saw,” piano, and bass. This instrumentation provides a rounded-out country sound, reminiscent of Bonnie Prince Billy’s later works with less of the try-hard “wizened old prophet” factor, or Iron & Wine on a higher-protein diet. The songs are honest, with none of the bombastic NASCAR arena-country of mainstream country-western, nor the deliberate freak-folk of Devendra Banhart or Animal Collective.

The strongest (and longest) track here is In the Analog Woods, which begins with the memorable line “Got a splinter in my toe from a Popsicle stick; that’s what I get for being such a memorable prick,” then slowly builds into what feels like an epic celebration of avoiding the digital frontier. For at least three minutes, Brian joyfully belts out the lines “the photographer pines, trees turn into tines…it’s all rather good to be in those woods, caught up in the trees with a bellyful of bees.” The piano-driven ballad On What It Means to Disconnect is also a highlight of this 10-song disc, as is the angry tension of Saddest Thing.

Despite these high points, this album is destined to be the simple pleasure of a few. The lack of any pretension of mainstream hit potential or tangible hipster angle seems acknowledged through the low-key profile of its conception and promotion. Recorded in Leominster, Massachusetts – hardly the epicentre of any identifiable “scene,” it was released frugally in May this year as a limited edition of 150, through a joint venture between Catbird Records and Tower of Song Records (home of TW Walsh and the Soft Drugs). The cover art by Matthew Feyld features a simple but brilliant etching of a creature that looks like McDonald’s Grimace with the condensed face of Steve Buscemi, and the extensive use of what appears to be the Silom font (at least on the promo version) is a hock-ptooey in the face of slick graphic design majors. Those 150 souls who brave Buscemi Grimace and Silom to harness a copy of this release will be rewarded over time, as repeated listening provides a gradual appreciation of its lyrical and musical offerings. Like a Van Gogh hidden under a 1950s painting of kids with tattered striped shirts and gigantic eyes, the Underpainting reveals itself over time. (Tower of Song Records & Catbird Records) (Jim Ebenhoh)