There are no casual Chris Staples fans. The man inspires devotion. The turnaround from casual listener to evangelist is nearly instantaneous. Play his music during a road trip with friends and inevitably someone will ask, “Who is this?” And a lifelong fan is born. Such is the unaffected power of these songs, of this voice. Chris Staples fandom is rewarding and lasting (despite his understated approach to promoting his own work, which – as it should be with all artists – seems secondary to the effort he puts into the making of it). We follow where he leads, and our numbers are growing.
A phenomenally dexterous guitarist, Staples has spent much of his career so far as a backing musician for other artists. Over the years he’s played with J. Tillman, later known as Father John Misty, and toured the world as a member of Telekinesis. Never content for long, Staples also travels on his own, never settling, never staid. A seasoned carpenter, he sustains his journeyman lifestyle by working construction jobs wherever he finds himself living. In the spring of 2014, having recently decamped to the Northwest, Chris Staples happened to do some work on the home of Josh Rosenfeld, co-founder and head of Seattle’s renowned Barsuk Records.
One night, Rosenfeld sat down to dinner with Matthew Caws and Michael Benjamin Lerner, members of Nada Surf and Telekinesis respectively. Rosenfeld recalls, “I knew Chris from his days in Telekinesis and told Michael that he was installing a screen door at my house. He and Matthew both told me that I had to hear Chris’s new record, which, thankfully, I did.” The two songwriters raved about the album, and insisted that Barsuk had to release it. Rosenfeld – and the entire staff of the label – agreed heartily, and American Soft became Staples’ debut Barsuk release. Continues Rosenfeld, “The hooks are great – subtle and elegant – and his voice has a soft raspy ease to it that I could listen to all day.”
American Soft is a bicoastal record, written partly in Washington State, the hardworking timberland home to grizzled locals and Midwestern expatriates, and also in Florida, the wild and weird American outland known as much for strange crime and cutting-edge nightclubs as for family theme parks and extravagant retirement communities. Staples wrote portions of American Soft while squatting in his abandoned childhood home, a Pensacola bungalow empty save for an old piano. “I slept on a Coleman cot for two months. The yard was overgrown up to my waist,” Staples remembers. “The neighbor lady across the street used to babysit me. I ran into her one day and she didn’t even recognize me. I hadn’t seen her in 15 years.”
American Soft’s musical ideas are at once diverse and cohesive, the lyrics both direct and lushly impressionistic. The sunny “Black Tornado,” built around a spritely ukulele strummed to a looped handclap-and-kickdrum beat, stands as the record’s poppiest track even as the foreboding cyclone shows up in the chorus. Upon first listen, the soft and sublime “Dark Side of the Moon” plays as a simple and strong declaration of a desire to love. On that level it works beautifully and completely satisfies. However, the title suggests something more, some deeper connection to the classic album with which it’s
Singer/songwriter Nate Lacy spent the years since his teens exploring his inner world and his connection with the universe at large.
The result of his efforts was a small collection of songs that, when finally recorded and released as Mimicking Birds in 2010, received such accolades as Pitchfork’s assessment that the debut LP was “extremely gifted with cyclical melodies: thorny fingerpicked spines around which he can snake a range of sounds simply for ambience.” These days, Lacy is focusing his gaze further outward, exploring what he calls “the infinite and the infinitesimal,” while also keeping lyrical watch on the crossroads where our digital future and our pastoral past bump up against each other. Few are the artists who are able to bring such thorny and thoughtful issues to bear in their music, but that is just one of the many reasons that Eons, the new album from Mimicking Birds, is so very special. How this comes out through Lacy is in toothsome lyrics that are filled to bursting with imagery, philosophical questions, and deep personal concerns. That he finds ways to tie these concepts together without losing his way or our fascination with them is a testament to his songwriting prowess. The rest of the band, Aaron Hanson and Adam Trachsel, works to remain connected to the Birds’ of yore, emphasizing fingerpicked acoustic guitars, the sturdy tones of a stand-up bass, and restrained drums, while pushing into the future as well. Too, Eons feels as expansive as its title thanks to the help of producer Jeremy Sherrer (The Gossip, 1776). He helped weave some gorgeous electronic textures into the songs – listen for the skittering programmed beat that helps carry “Owl Hoots” forward, or the swells of keyboards that pull closing track “Movin’ On” towards an ‘80s pop sunrise. It’s quite a lot for one album or one band to carry on its shoulders, but Mimicking Birds and Eons prove capable of bearing the weight of this expansive view of the physical world and the world that we can only reach through an amazing piece of music. Eons has 10 such tracks that will transport, delight, and surprise you, even through multiple listens.
It’s a band man. Project of Alaska Reid.