David Karsten Daniels
he guests at sour milk hotel have, of late, failed to impress without some je ne sais quoi—synthesizer, harp, violin, trumpet, or all. Without a bit of mixing and open-mindedness the folk-ish scene remains pleasant but aloof from originality. To introduce an album as “recorded on two continents and in three states”—see David Karsten Daniels’ website—tends to solidify an apparent relationship between displacement of genre and displacement of musician. The acoustic guitar, that friendly, portable, play-anywhere instrument, appears to actually fuel wanderlust and displacement. Frequently this variety of theme makes all—album, artist, audience—a little tired, anemic, and confused. And Daniels’ fourth album, and first for Fat Cat, is all those things. On paper, formulaic catchphrases like “displacement” and “human disconnect” (see website again) provoke an eye-roll of déja-vus. But, as is so often the case with words about music, the words do no justice without attentive listening thereupon affixed.
Karsten’s classically inspired, deeply visual string interludes (see “Sharp Teeth II”) and companionable, crashing waves of vocals (opener “The Dream Before the Ring that Woke Me”) illustrate that he actually has the je ne sais quoi. The 19-person army of musicians recording on this late winter wonder define the what and the how of the French expression: bolsters of violin, chorus, and piano add volumes to a bare-bone 36 minutes of acoustic lullabies, so that “Sharp Teeth II” is a quiet, brooding piece of landscape that moves little around the scale and is all the more riveting for sitting as still as it does. The whole album is a slow, aching process of self-examination, geographic rendering, relational critiquing: nothing new there. This is an album on which, melodically, almost nothing happens. Atmosphere and ironic urgency (for all the crawl-pace tempos) are what enrapture and envelope the ear.
The lulling, ominous choruses of “Minnows” up the ante on Low’s creeping molasses tactics, and many simmering moments elsewhere upgrade other ‘90s moments of folk-rock bliss. Daniels’ voice is perhaps inconveniently similar to Andrew Bird’s, because the long intro to “Scripts” has more in common with Bird’s quirky, creepy “A Nervous Tic Motion to the Head,” once that reference registers in the brain. Otherwise the rolling waltz of the song’s second half and its small, whining brass section are Neutral Milk Hotel to a T. However, the heart of this album is the simple stuff: “Jesus and the Devil” and the almost cliché, but actually insightful lyric, “I saw Jesus walk on water / But I could’ve been wrong.” Daniels’ voice is clear and bright, for all his minor keys and sad, clouded libretti. When doting on the private, personal, and lugubrious, Daniels still coaxes us in with a strangely near-comatose alertness of whether the little self-indulges common to so many singer-songwriters are actually working. Here, even at their most nebulous and historically familiar, they are.