et’s be honest: The single most compelling reason to buy Sparrow House’s debut EP Falls is that, unless things go horribly, horribly wrong, it’s a sure bet to be worth crazy eBay money soon. Sparrow House auteur Jared Van Fleet’s regular gig, after all, is as stage keyboardist for Austin, Texas’ Voxtrot, the almost unilateral choice among indie cognoscenti for Most Likely To Succeed. And if the last two-and-a-half decades of music fetishism have any lessons to relate to today’s kids, it’s that whenever some ancillary member of a shit-hot indie outfit puts out a self-released mini-work in a hand-painted sleeve with hand-drawn artwork, your job as a smart consumer is to jump all over that shit and start counting down the hours until payday. I mean, did we forget everything the Arcade Fire taught us the moment they reissued their debut EP?
Fortunately for consumers, Falls comes unshrinkwrapped, meaning there’s no reason not to listen to it if you buy it, which works out pretty well since Falls happens to be rather astonishingly pretty. To put it bluntly, it’s tempting to say that it shames the rest of Voxtrot’s recorded output in the same way that the Postal Service’s Give Up kinda shamed everything else Jimmy Tamborello ever touched; considering that Voxtrot’s output to date consists of three EPs and a handful of singles, I’m not entirely certain that this assessment is fair, but that doesn’t make it one iota less tempting.
What’s striking is that Falls’ worn out beauty, discrete and fully fleshed-out though it might be, wouldn’t sound a bit out of place on a proper Voxtrot record. The difference is simply one of affect. Like most of Voxtrot’s best songs, “The Warmest Part of the Winter” is most comforting as a celebration of a type of song, an endearingly refreshing checklist of genre tropes which just happened to find themselves arranged in song form once the band members found the most effortless way to make them sound good. Falls, though, sounds anything but effortless. From the chopped-up electro-glitch micro-symphony opening the record through the way it exercises restraint in bringing in the horn section until the EP just can’t cling to life for another second without it, it’s a record that practically typifies what it means to sound painstaking.
The most reliable, insightful charms of Falls all have to do with Van Fleet’s near-palpable fondness for the AOR of Jackson Browne’s “I Thought I Was a Child” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide”; some songs simply crumble under the weight of calculated adornment, even if they aren’t as “out there” as a comparable song by John Cale or Nico. Falls’ centerpiece is “When I Am Gone,” a devastatingly unassuming elegy for a romantic affair which, if the narration is to be believed, failed to thrive despite Van Fleet’s best efforts. In lesser hands, it could have easily ventured into John Mayer territory, never to be heard from again. Yet in practice, its elegantly simple arrangements (one acoustic guitar, one piano, two tracks of vocals) lend the song an overpowering stateliness—rather than tip the song’s hand, Van Fleet simply presents the song’s subject matter like an elementary-school math lesson and lets it sink or swim on its own. The fact that the song happens to be about the futility of Van Fleet’s own efforts only adds to the poignancy; the fact that the song adamantly refuses to insist upon it cements it.
I’m not trying to argue that Falls is destined to be a lost classic or anything. But it does exist, its virtues are mighty irrepressible, and as best as I can tell, not so much as a single shred of irony went into its conception or execution. So if nothing else, there’s that. And believe me, it’s more than enough to tide you over until you flip it for rent money in a few years.
Reviewed by: James Cobo
Reviewed on: 2006-12-07