Stories for Owls
Free Porcupine Society
arly this week at work a coworker peeked into my office and asked what on earth I was listening to. This happened at an awkward time, as Ben Chasny’s Badgerlore were running through a particularly out-there moment of “Building a Nest,” the final track on their sophomore disc, Stories for Owls. Chasny’s voice was in high-whine glory, stepping awkwardly over a low chant, the two wordless voices making up the entirety of the song. Unable to fully explain to my coworker Badgerlore’s place amongst modern folk and improvised music, and unwilling—for fear of ridicule—to tell anyone that I was listening to a band named “Badgerlore,” I muttered something like “Well, it’s sort of, um, this atmospheric, experimental stuff.” Yes, that would do.
“So it’s sort of like research and development, but for music,” she fired back, half jokingly.
“Well, not, see, it’s kind of like that … it’s improvised you see,” I prattled back.
She left, satisfied enough, but it wasn’t until later that I realized the implications of her comment. Was Chasny, who flies solo with Six Organs of Admittance and tags along on electric guitar with Comets on Fire, experimenting with Badgerlore for the sake of his other projects? Even after 2003’s excellent Folk Music for No One, Badgerlore remains virtually unpublicized. And Chasny’s current winning streak—Six Organs’ School of the Flower remains one of the year’s better discs and Chasny’s axe revved up Comets on Fire for last year’s Blue Cathedral—certainly suggests that he’s been doing his psych-rock homework. Is Badgerlore merely a publicized workout for Chasny’s future projects?
The most compelling argument against the R&D; theory is how far Badgerlore strays from Chasny’s previous outings. Also featuring Tom Carter of Charalambides, Pete Swanson of Yellow Swans, and Rob Fisk of 7 Year Rabbit Cycle (who was Chasny’s partner on the last Badgerlore album), Stories for Owls percussion-less jams are far more ethereal and mercurial than Six Organs’ John Fahey-inspired roots ragas, and they miss Comets on Fire’s electric boogaloo by a country mile.
A thorny, slow-leak jamboree of tripping piano wire, nervous electric twiddling, and spooky drones, Stories for Owls contains the same salt-of-the-earth jam of Folk Music, but strays even further into the realm of the unreal, giving the listener only faint memories to grasp as the compositions pass. A dozen listens in, the record’s only tenable moment is the descending minor-key riff that bedrocks “Stone Stick Earth Brick,” Stories’ first track. Like an Americana-tinted Mogwai song that fails to climax, the composition lingers somewhere between sinister and optimistic for nearly six minutes.
The rest of the album is a series of sepia-toned nothings, each track stretching out and breathing rusty organs, thorny jangle and windy vocals into the band’s considerable negative space. Sounds occasionally collide, but the musicians mostly scatter at each other’s footsteps, less feeding off one another than dancing awkwardly to the same tune, each hoping to avoid detection. It’s impossible to discern who’s producing what noises, but it seems safe to assume Chasny responsible for the ethereal, whispering voices and at least half of the electric noodling. There’s less vox here than on Folk Music, but that leaves plenty of room for Fisk and company to whittle about. And while individual performances are nearly impossible to distinguish, the album’s more inspired moments—see the ascendant final minutes of “iii”—congeal to form an aura of ghostly old-world rust.
While aimlessness is Stories’ cardinal sin, there’s enough talent converging here to buoy even the most weightless moments. On “Green Canoe,” for instance, high-pitched organs oscillate behind drunken piano and guitar-amp tumbleweed, working together to create the kind of deep-forest psychedelia that the band’s song titles and artwork suggest. Between Comets on Fire, Six Organs’ latest work, and Badgerlore, Chasny is proving that he’s ready to move away from his early-period Fahey-worship and into a higher echelon of new American roots music. Badgerlore is too heady, too esoteric to have any long-term impact, but it proves far too meaty to write-off as research for his next “real” venture.