(Kranky; 2007)

By Dom Sinacola | 8 November 2007

It doesn't take much for Rob Lowe to carve out a neat little idyll for himself. At first Omns seems like an organ, engorged but flash frozen, that ages slowly but still smells like life and industry; Lichens makes city-building sound easy, and Omns can leave a huge first impression. But Lichens is really just one guy, and his array of instruments is dinky at best, not much more than elemental at worst. His performances are minor, staid, watching paint dry then flake then burn and curl and finally explode, leveling one's house and murdering one's loved ones.

Lowe's something of a revered live presence in Chicago, part of collectives and bands and mash-ups both whispered and advertised proudly, and he's inadvertently been cast as an everyman somebody for a regional musical movement. Turns out live he lays down some pedals and meager knobs then sits in an undoubtedly uncomfortable chair bow-legged strumming gooky chords at a glacial pace. Two microphones pick up his wordless wails, and a third processing mic distorts the pace and clarity of his vocal tones. This is all, of course, looped in long takes, and Lowe plays the aloof genius, convincing his audience that their show is an inimitable moment worth gasps and smiles and maybe even mascara-streaking tears.

I sound cynical, right, but what's going on with those gnarled tufts of hair breaking out all over his head and eating up his face? What's up with the DVD included with this album that's a thirty-minute, dreamy spill of a performance recorded at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, interspersed with dorky, sniffling bouts of forest shots? Or the DVD menu that might give me diabetes and epilepsy before I can hit Enter on my remote? This jumpy tedium can get infuriating, but what's most off-putting about Lowe's whole artistic package is how, even with an omniscient view staring Lichens' paltry presence in the mouth and even with platitudes lending a questionably deserved might to the Lichens stage event, Lowe's an alien dude (and not very commanding for it).

Maybe he's just found a focus. What he can't do with a rudimentary number of limbs he wouldn't do with fifteen or so, anyway. Compared to the Lichens debut The Psychic Nature of Being (2005), Omns passes closer to definable structures of song, festooning epic swathes of drone and linen with almost illogical balls of fury. While nothing ever reaches past mantras of improvisation, and while Lowe's music never attains any palpable violence, recognizable patterns still emerge. "Vevor of Agassou" dips ice fascicles in milk, chips at the stolid movements with warming tones of electric guitar. In three minutes the facade has melted: a song as big as ( ) (2002) is parsed into nuggets, and Lowe's sleepy methods untangle the mythic proportions. "Faeries" doesn't delve much deeper than the detached cool of the opening track, instead wreathing blankets of falsetto -- echoed, toyed with endlessly, and then left lonely like Christian Scientists believe -- around downer piano chords and trace notes of exhaustion. That's not to imply that Omns is an easy listen, even though its dynamics seem churning volcano black up against The Psychic Nature of Being's risible folk white, but all the noise obscures a simple songwriting ethic (the same can be said for Kranky's Valet record). A track like "Bune" (did I just hear "Happy Birthday"?) is a searing tirade of electric guitar, more anthem than blues wail, and it's only that, on and on, legato feedback pondered and then split by nimble glissandos.

For the most part Lichens sticks to that design, seemingly rallying against the patience he demands by demolishing every passage of calm with a capsule of raged guitar or pitch-shifted whine. "M St r ng W tchcr ft L v ng n Sp r t" indulges every trusted task, three-parting first with resounding acoustic plucking and rising organ, then with some birdies going to town on chirps, and then more gorgeous vocals swarming the walls of whatever old house Lowe just had to record inside if my romantic imaginings are to survive. Really, the pace of Omns is so effortlessly agile, dumb bird "poo-tee-weeting" is enough to foretell chaos or adorn the end of chaos. And foretold or adorned chaos is only as inchoate as a poorly edited DVD. Striking, but thin, slid under the door or through the mail slot.

If he's too meek to posture, God bless his strange soul; Rob Lowe just has the inconvenience of shouldering the barbells of some eccentric, overbearing scenesters. As Clay's mentioned, like any great ambient act, Lichens has the sweet packaging and esoteric names down pat. If only his music were ambient, then the swirling weirdness of the act would be suitable addenda. Instead, the audience is presented with an illusion and a quickly usurping alternative, and only when the reality of Lowe's processes is revealed does the grandness of his machinations begin to devolve. Still, Omns is a haunting record, beautifully compelling even when thousands of celestial voices are reduced to one minor tongue.