||How They Are
||3 September 2010
||Altenative, ambient, folk
Sometimes the lonely voice can be more powerful than a whole orchestra of instruments.
Peter Broderick, an erstwhile member of Efterklang, has produced a sparse, melancholic and beautiful mini album How They Are that softly roars in the face of modern polyphonic production.
In convalesce after a serious knee injury, the Oregon native embarked on a partial follow up to 2008’s debut Home. With only a piano, a couple of guitars and with few effects, Broderick let his raw vocals and solitary playing do the talking.
'Sideline' opens in the most stripped down way possible with the human voice as the only instrument. Craning and aching, the acapella beginning exposes the frailty of the performer leading onto an elegiac piano that drives the song forward. Broderick speaks with mournful duplicity about being on the outside looking in on the crowd without devolving into self pity. This is a wonderful impressionistic start.
The influence of Closing Time era Tom Waits and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy can be heard on 'Human Eyeballs on Toast' and 'Guilt’s Tune'. The ambient piano on the former track flows gently like a trickling stream in its long instrumental intro. A quiet yet direct vocal styling and deadpan surrealism (like Will Oldham) is evident once the vocals kick in. This is a beautiful song full of indefinable emotion. 'Guilt’s Tune' is a dreamy acoustic number that ghosts along in much the same way as the lonelier parts of Springsteen’s 'Nebraska'.
Again the sparse piano takes hold on 'When I’m Out'. Instrumental, it dances like a lonely patron within some dusty old dive bar. This is real 4am stuff with the right amount of magical melancholy in the air to serve the listener's sense of wonder.
'With a key' has another trembling piano at its centre but unlike its predecessors it has a somewhat concrete narrative. It feels like an old folk tale about a mysterious maiden that lures the narrator towards her house ‘with a key in a hand with a chance of knowing’ but reaffirms the overall elusiveness of the album by descending in to cryptic feeling rather than any explicit acknowledgement of loss or love.
The dramatic and the sombre collide in another instrumental track 'Pulling The Rain'. The early impressionist quality of the piano is like a soundtrack to a Kieslowski film however it switches tempo from the downbeat in to a galloping stride towards the end raising the melancholy towards emotive frenzy.
The mini album ends with its most straight forward song about the transient nature of leaving and travelling and the effect it has on the narrator and those close to him. An acoustic guitar twangs in isolation and Broderick almost sounds like James Taylor in his delicate tones. "I say goodbye too often".
How They Are is a beautiful and lamenting collection. Almost faultless in its tone and conception, the emphasis on the starkness of Broderick’s vocals and the downbeat nature of the music is more important for the artist than the actual meaning behind the lyrics. It may not be for everyone but for those who like their singer songwriting sparse and heavy on moody piano this is the stuff of late night lonely barroom dreams.
- Tim Gannon