Click to hear: “Hands (Haunt) Feet”
It’s generally a safe bet that releases from local powerhouse Time-Lag Records will tread the line between beautiful and abstruse. The first full-length disc from Time-Lag’s Cursillistas gives the listener plenty on both fronts. Thrush Chimes in the Field Haunt creates the kind of acoustic space, full of dusty corners and blind alleys, that can keep a listener interested for quite some time.
The solo recording project of Matthew LaJoie, Cursillistas marries the hushed simplicity of Palace Brothers–era Will Oldham with the sonic tendencies of the most recent strain of psychedelic folk to great effect. Picture a slight young man in threadbare corduroys playing a partially broken guitar on the front porch of a haunted house in the middle of a big empty field, and you’re pointing in the right direction.
LaJoie’s voice – breathy and even in the lower register and delicately wavery in the high register – is evocatively understated, and somehow manages to sound simultaneously distant and perfectly audible. At its best, LaJoie’s vocals become another instrument in the soundscape. On “Hands (Haunt) Feet,” the simple, repetitive vocal melody blends with the cyclic guitars and sparse percussion, creating a hazy trance broken about halfway through the track by the unexpected appearance of a distorted electric guitar submerged in the mix.
Unlike most musicians who could be thrown into the pejorative junk-drawer of the “singer/songwriter” classification, for LaJoie, singing is not the main focus, and at times almost feels like an afterthought. Admittedly, I had trouble with this at first, wishing the songs’ lyrics showed the same imagination and inventiveness as their titles (“Assembled from the Wing Feathers of Several Hundred Black Seagulls” is a shining example, as is the perplexingly titled “Edit Weapons”). The lyrics often feel like placeholders – which, to some extent, they are. The words accompanying the melodies are less important than their sonic attributes.
What makes this album so immersive and interesting has less to do with individual songs or catchy hooks than with atmosphere, the overall sound of the record. LaJoie leaves enough space around each instrument to evoke a sense of largeness and imply the presence of other sounds just beyond the aural horizon. Percussion is almost always used sparingly, and occasionally sounds like it’s created from found objects (I’m pretty sure there’s a typewriter on at least one track). Various acoustic instruments weave in and out of the songs, interspersed with electronic tones and the odd wind instrument.
The tracks I gravitate toward most are the three instrumental numbers, because in the absence of vocals, LaJoie seems more willing to spread out and explore more diverse sonic avenues. They also have the best titles. (Seriously, “Assembled from Fragments of the Author’s Memories of Iowa City,” “Assembled from the Wing Feathers of Several Hundred Black Seagulls,” and “Assembled from the Mangled Cardboard of Refrigerator Delivery Boxes” – that’s hot.) Just as their titles are variations on a linguistic theme, the instrumental tracks themselves, spaced at roughly equal intervals throughout the album, give the impression of being variations on a similar abstract, wordless feeling.
Given all the admirable musical exploration on this album, perhaps it was inevitable some of the tracks should be dead ends. Happily, the songs that either don’t come together or come together in a way I can’t quite grasp (a distinct possibility) are vastly out-numbered by those that do. For every track like “Leaves” or “I Want to See Fall (Door)” that feel a little too disorganized to really work, there are six or seven that do. One of the natural outcomes of trying to create a unique sound is running across a few unlovely ones in the process.
That being said, this really is a wonderful album. It is also an album quickly selling through its extremely limited run; of the original 140 copies, there were about a dozen left at the time of this writing. The surest way to pick up one of the remaining copies is to grab a spot on the floor for Cursillistas’ show at Strange Maine on Sept. 21.