Thursday, January 22, 2009
Stephen Steinbrink - Ugly Unknowns (Gilgongo Records CD)
Formerly known as French Quarter--whose impressive debut LP is yet to be reviewed here much to my dismay/scheduling issues--Stephen Steinbrink is a 20 year old singer/songwriter whose compositions are far more achieved than about 95% of the other stuff out there in this realm. With an ear for catchy bedroom melodies, Steinbrink does an impressive job of leaving enough unanswered questions to lend the proceedings a mystery all their own.
The disc opens with "Breath of Fire," whose initial guitar line could be a Reich piece if the well placed drums didn't come in to drive the riff along. A small organ mimics it as well while Stephen sings lyrics that fit snuggly between his distinctly indie sound and a more lo-fi approach. "Overpassing" follows with a steady bass line and an steady crescendoing vocal melody. When the fuzz box comes in it moves this into grayer fields before the lines drift back to allow for his warm voice to shine through again.
"South of 13th" initiates a run of three songs that explore a darker side to Steinbrink's potential. A two chord minor melody sways about while the singer's vocals sing in mournful nostalgia. "Huachuca City" sounds like some reworking of "Blue Jay Way" or something, as its subtle psych sound is achieved by nothing more than an organ, drums, guitar and voice. There is a warm sorrow to the track is it undulates along. "In Six Days" closes the run with a lovely guitar line and soft, near whispered vocals about lost love. Steinbrink's knack for soft vocal lines tend to obscure how beautiful a voice he has--the fragility of his singing plays a huge role in the whole vibe of the album.
A song like "My Best Intent," with its sliding guitar and bongo drum rhythm, has a quirkiness that might aline Steinbrink with thos eworking in the "freak-folk" (terrible genre name...) realm, but Steinbrink's voice is far more singular, less interested in making his works strange than making them work. The following title track, whose bass line has an arbeggiation that somehow finds a space between"Stain Alive" and "She's Lost Control." It's one of the catchiest works on the disc. "On Sleeping," uses Steinbrink's minimal instrumentation carefully--he is a musician who is never afraid of letting his melodies and small moments speak for themselves, an impressive level of confidence that makes these work. "When It's Easier" is a light, near eighties Cocteau Twins style melody that sways about beautifully before "I Don't Want to Get Stabbed" finds him finger-picking in Simon and Garfunkel meets Dylan territory before a psych guitar phase comes out that re-situates it to Steinbrink's own sound world.
The disc closes with "I Don't Ever Want to Die," a gentle lullaby of a song whose overall sense of timid fragility recalls groups like Akron/Family and Grizzly Bear before moving into near Stereolab pulses. It's a wonderful album, and perhaps for the first time on this blog, done by someone who is working in an overtly pop-y realm. Steinbrink's strength of composition and maturity of execution make the album one that could/should harken far greater recognition of his work. Of course to say that he "could go somewhere" is absurd in this context. He already has. Let's just hope more are willing to go there with him.
It may not out yet, but definitely will be soon. Check Gilgongo's site out for more info on that.