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Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Tallest Man on Earth: Dark Bird is Home and Surfer Blood: 1000 Palms (Release Dates: 5-12-2015)

        2010 was a ridiculously great year in music. Arcade Fire and Kanye were at their peaks, LCD Soundsystem was riding off into the sunset, and veterans like The National and Beach House bolstered their staying power ten-fold. It was also a tremendous 12-months for up-and-comers, including sun-soaked, indie-rocking Surfer Blood, and Dylan descendant Kristian Matsson, a.k.a. The Tallest Man on Earth. Both Matsson and the Blood boys were in their early twenties at the time, and on Tuesday, each act releases a new album that marks a stylistic line in the sand. Avid fans of Astro Coast and The Wild Hunt need to adjust their expectations: 2010 was only an introduction, and 2015 marks a year of change.

        Upon its release, Astro Coast felt more than a little like Weezer's green album; an out-of-nowhere blast of sublime college rock, relying on catchy, economic songwriting just as much as power chord muscle. A rock solid 40-minutes that could be played from front to back without bumping into a single clunker, Surfer Blood's debut LP, much like that aforementioned Weezer effort, seemed to promise a long, bright future. They even followed it up with the excellent 4-song EP Tarot Classics back in October of 2011, marking the top of a wave that hasn't stopped crashing down since. Frontman John Paul Pitts was arrested in 2012 and charged with domestic battery, a blemish that was later expunged in the form of a plea and pass agreement. The incident likely lead many fans away from the band, as their follow-up LP, Pythons, commercially fell on its face. Finally, guitarist Thomas Fekete left the group earlier this year after he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called Sarcoma, which has subsequently spread to his lungs and spine. Suffice to say, next week's 1000 Palms is being released amidst a liiiiittle turmoil.

        While the struggles of Kristian Matsson aren't exactly on the level of the all-out Surfer Blood catastrophe, they inform nearly every passing moment of Dark Bird is Home. After touring heavily following the release of 2012's There's No Leaving Now, the strumming Swede returned home to his then girlfriend only to find their relationship irrevocably damaged, the two having grown apart during their extended separation. While the break-up theme isn't quite as pervasive or literal as it was on the most recent albums by Björk and Lykke Li, there's an unmissable sense of melancholy that hangs over nearly each passing track. Matsson practically whimpers his way through opener Fields of Our Home, voice cracking like a pubescent teen as he admits to "dreaming of a second run." This isn't the same guy who once howled a plea for you to, "not go the f***ing way." Dark Bird is the sound of Tallest Man accepting defeat, and wrapping his sound up in losses lovely dreariness.

        On the bright side, Matsson is getting that 'second run' in after all, even if it's not in the realm of romance. Gone is the just-a-dude-and-his-guitar simplicity of The Wild Hunt, replaced here by arrangements that are lush and full-bodied in a way that seemed altogether impossible as recently as five years ago. There were warning signs of course; the singer/songwriter followed Hunt with his Sometimes the Blues is Just a Passing Bird EP later that same year, a release that included his first foray into the world of electric guitars. There's No Leaving Now did it one better, amping up the multi-tracking, and filling out songs with guitar effects and instruments beyond your standard six-string. In hindsight, Leaving marks a distinct break in Matsson's career, the moment when he ceased his insistence on going it alone, and stripping everything down to its bare essentials. It just took Dark Bird's doubling-down for us to notice.

        In this sense, comparing Dark Bird to 1000 Days could not be more perfect, as each steps confidently forward in a previously foretold direction, clarifying their creators' prior releases in the process. When Pythons came out in the summer of 2012, it took a grand total of one listen to sink near the bottom of my personal rotation. Gone were the stadium-filling riffs of Astro Coast bangers like Swim and Fast Jabroni, replaced by sing-a-long ditties that treated the act of being cheesy as a virtue. The album was produced by industry mainstay Gil Norton, and while much of 1000 Days' pre-release chatter has centered around the band returning to the in-house production of their earlier work, their new album retains all of Pythons' lactose, and perhaps acquires even more. Surprisingly, that's a good thing.

        These guys aren't Weezer; they're The Smiths, and on 1000 Days, they wield their corniness in a way that would make Morrissey and the gang proud. Pitts' voice might not be on that level, but he makes up for it with a supernatural knack for melody, contentedly guiding us through Covered Wagons, while the unfussy vocal-line of Into Catacombs is branded on your brain upon first listen. Both so tacky, both so delicious, and neither even among the album's real stand-outs. I Can't Explain rides out of existence on the the biggest riff in 1000 Days' arsenal, while the locked-in groove of Point of No Return tickles eardrums without ever truly raising its voice. The Thomas Fekete diagnosis is made all the more tragic by this album's existence; Surfer Blood's latest emphasizes his slick, steady ax-work to terrific effect, his guitar fill propping Sabre-Tooth and Bone up all by itself, mutating opener Grand Inquisitor with the power of his playing. It's difficult to see the band maintaining this level of easy-going song craft without his seemingly intrinsic abilities, which makes the success of 1000 Palms all the more important and satisfying.

        While Surfer Blood managed to 'find themselves' on the brink of being altered forever more, The Tallest Man on Earth continues to experience growing pains on his way to Matsson's new incarnation. The troubadour put himself on the map with the simplicity of his craft, pairing intricate yet indelible acoustic guitar mastery with non-traditional vocals that bled with passion and urgency. Dark Bird treats most of that as though it was an accident, piling variance and gloss onto a sound that, to my mind, required neither. Matsson's vocals have been pointedly sanded-down, perhaps to skirt those unskirtable Dylan comparisons, and while deemphasizing his nasal-y croon might be for the best in the long run, it saps his voice of its signature passion almost whole-sale. Meanwhile, the emphasis on elaborate instrumentation serves to diminish the singular strength of Matsson's guitar. His fretboard efforts are a complete after-thought on Slow Dance and Seventeen, and album highlights Timothy and Little Nowhere Towns can hardly find room for Tallest Man's most trusted ally. Given the production and talent on hand, Dark Bird was never going to be a pure failure, but one does get the impression that Matsson is getting away from his strengths, rather than playing into them.

        Leaving Now marked a turning point, but it still made room for sumptuous DIY winners like Leading Me Now and Criminals. Tallest Man shelves that approach completely this time around, and even when he appears on his lonesome, as he does on Singers and Fields of Our Home, his plucking proves gentle and steady where previous efforts were zippy and specific. It seems only fair to judge Dark Bird is Home by the standards of any other album (it's undoubtably above-average), but as a long-time fan, this new direction is quickly getting away from what made Matsson's music such a treasure in the first place. Surfer Blood is now equally unrecognizable, but I mind half as much, which speaks to the thoroughness with which 1000 Palms sticks its landing. Closer NW Passage alludes to this sense of contentment, a breezy guitar riff and Pitts' chilled-out vocal delivery patiently ushering us away, sun beaming on our backs. This is the sound of a band locating its comfort zone, and even if that's soon set to change due to Fekete's diagnosis, the good vibes of 1000 Palms will live on.

Dark Bird is Home Grade: B
1000 Palms Grade: B+

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