hat Handwriting displays an uncommon maturity exceeding Connor Kirby-Long’s seventeen years need hardly be said; here’s one instance where the word ‘prodigy’ legitimately applies. But, having acknowledged the feat’s impressiveness, one moves on to the central issue of the album’s merit and in that regard Handwriting is an extremely frustrating recording. What might have registered as a noteworthy debut instead sounds misguided in its general approach.
Most of the thirteen tracks are three-minute vocal-based pop songs of a delicate and fragile sort built from core arrangements of piano, synths, guitars, and drums. The key word is ‘core’ because unfortunately Kirby-Long buries the songs under layers of fuzzy noise that prove overwhelming and ultimately maddening. And that’s a shame because it’s potentially a good album but, to hear it, you must imagine what the songs sound like without that smothering blur; furthermore, the haze makes it all but impossible to decipher Kirby-Long’s lyrics. His singing, too, while passable has a nasal quality (“Daylight And Delight” and “Kill2”) which can be grating. The production mix doesn’t help matters by pushing everything to the forefront, and, less critical but worth noting, many songs typically end with an abrupt rather than smoother fade.
Let’s be more specific. “Man From The Anthill” features an appealing vocal melody and glissando slide guitar but they’re buried under a mountain of fuzz and static. Somewhat better is “Dusty” which begins promisingly with acoustic guitar strums and a lovely vocal melody and is nicely enhanced by melodic sweetening in the background; unfortunately a distorted guitar dominates its latter third. The up-tempo “A Little Secret,” memorable for its New Order bassline and elegant piano melody, would be a very pleasant pop song if the sonic clutter were removed. Another potentially strong track is the waltz-time “Phone Calls From You” whose heartfelt melody convincingly reflects its theme of adolescent yearning; sadly, needless stutter is added to the voice and instruments. The reverberant piano chords and clanking beat in “Crapstone” are sweetened by electronic melodies and an attractive guitar figure that recalls Manual, but its vocal is saddled with blur and echo. In almost every case, digital excess weakens the impact these folk-pop songs could have had and, predictably, the album impresses most of all in those rare moments where the music is presented most plainly.
While Gavin Bryars and Connor Kirby-Long inhabit dissimilar musical realms, it’s instructive to compare the two in one specific regard. Gavin Bryars recorded his 1990 version of The Sinking of the Titanic in an early 19th-century three-story water tower so as to maximize the composition’s resonance within a massive reverberation chamber—an apt set of performance and recording circumstances given the content of the work itself; when Long buries his songs under digital noise on Handwriting there’s no comparatively legitimate justification for doing so. To cite one of numerous possible examples, why is the piano in “Kill2” made to sound like it’s being played underwater? Stripped of its digital excess, one hears an engaging set of affecting pop songs that impressively showcase a young artist’s writing and arranging talents.
Reviewed by: Ron Schepper
Reviewed on: 2004-08-20