he first thing that one should know about The Cloverleaves’ People I Know LP is contained within its liner notes. Specifically, it lists Todd Burns as “a saint and an inspiration”. A calculated risk, I suppose, for this Leon Neyfakh solo project- as he knew that there was a high probability that I would be reviewing this album for this very site. At the very least, it makes my job that much harder for this particular album. In the grand scheme of things its something I would never buy in, say, a Virgin Megastore- but, on the other, it’s a piece of recording that I will probably listen to and enjoy more than anything I’ve ever bought there.
And People I Know fulfills the same effect for a large group of people that will listen to the album- it is, exactly as titled, about people that Leon knows. Each song tackles a specific person covering a myriad of topics: a road trip to Yao’s house, being a camp counselor, and his odd relationship to our very own Stylus writer Sam Bloch and his friend, Peter Ribic.
In all of these cases, I have neither met nor seen the people written about- making Neyfakh’s job of character sketching a tough one. On many tracks, Neyfakh takes the tack of the Mountain Goats- using an acoustic guitar and his lyrics nakedly to confront the people that have made an impact on his life. Neyfakh’s lyrics, however, tend to be far more personal: “I was your camp counselor” is used almost as a taunting slogan in “Like Spinning Pitr”, “No more peeing/’cause they understand/I’m a serious dude/I’m a serious man” is spoken/sung in an almost maniacal monotone referring to Mark and Nate and the imminent revenge that will be had upon them, and “go check out if they have the new Modest Mouse/so they can review it for Stylus” kind of speaks for itself.
It’s this type of insularity that typifies how the album can be viewed. It’s a fascinating view into the mind of an individual who doesn’t appear to be taking on characters, as the Mountain Goats John Darnielle often does. Instead we are left- either drawn into Leon’s world or unable/unwilling to make the effort to care or understand what is going on.
Musically, the album can be broken into three separate categories: solo acoustic guitar, acoustic guitar with slight instrumental backing (what sounds like a drum machine providing the rhythmic backdrop), and electronic experiments. As might be expected the acoustic numbers are the easiest to stomach immediately. A simplicity of form and lyric inform the few tracks that adhere to this age-old model. The acoustic guitar matched with the drum machine conceit usually doesn’t fare as well. In most cases the drum machine takes on a canned feeling, leaving little life to the song. In particular, “Willy Dintenfass, Last Standing Hero of Milwaukee, Wisconsin” suffers from this malady. Neyfakh’s wailings at the end of the song would be much improved if not held together by the rigid beat of a keyboard preset. The electronic experiments are essentially acoustic guitar songs with electronic rhythms, however, in this category the rhythm is pushed even further to the forefront. On these unfortunate songs it usually takes on an overbearing quality that devolves quickly into kitsch. Production-wise, however, the album is a success. Recorded, most likely, in a room at the computer, the songs are lively and leave Neyfakh sounding as though he is right in the room with you- for better or worse.
It’s a hard thing to judge a friend’s work. You want to point them in the right direction to make them a better artist, while extolling the qualities that the album already contains. As a debut home bedroom recording, People I Know is a self-consciously gimmicky album, but a relatively solid one. Lyrically, however, it’s as though Neyfakh is afraid to try to create a piece of art that doesn’t ultimately refer back to the fact that is a piece of art. Judging by his writing, though, Neyfakh’s strengths lie in his ability to disregard the self conscious aspect of presentation- to make an intensely personal experience something larger than itself. On People I Know, the deeply personal stays that way, rarely allowing outside listeners to enjoy a sense of belonging. If the winking Neyfakh on the cover art is any indication, however, he already knew that- and he doesn’t give a damn. And perhaps that’s all that matters.