Pale Air Singers

Pale Air Singers

(Flemish Eye; 2009)

By Eric Sams | 15 September 2009

Flemish Eye is just killing it right now. As if being Chad VanGaalen’s pop culture bullhorn wasn’t enough, last year the self-described “indie boutique” presided over lo-fi shitstorm and CMG year-end honoree Women, by the band of same name. More recently one of VanGaalen’s side projects, Black Mold, prompted Chet to write a gushing review in which he resorted to an uncharacteristic elongated drug metaphor. And that brings us—panting with the effort of keeping up—to the release of Pale Air Singers, also shit hot.

The Pale Air Singers is a collaboration between Flemish Eye artists the Cape May and indie-folk duo Run Chico Run. Both individual acts are tight knit affairs so together the Singers are still only a five-piece, but certainly a complex one. At least three of the five share composition and singing duties, most of them play multiple instruments which creates a revolving door dynamic when they play live. Amid this Gordian tangle of roles, responsibilities, talents, and ideas it’s nearly impossible for a listener to figure out who’s doing what on a given track, which makes the prospect of this album having been written and recorded in a single two-to-three week session an accomplishment of startling intricacy.

How could there not have been too many cooks in this kitchen? I mean I know they’re all Canadian, but still. I was raised believing that common purpose or artistic vision notwithstanding, there are clear and inflexible limits to the human capacity for cooperation. How do so many different songwriters bend and nudge and mold their individual styles into something so spare and sonorous? Because there’s not a muddled note of confusion or unplanned dissonance in the whole damned shootin’ match. The Flemish Eye website hopefully declares that similar future collaborative efforts are forthcoming, but I’d be skeptical that such volatile alchemy could be reliably reproduced with the resulting output being at once so varied and so cohesive.

The writer whose influence bleeds through the most seems to be the Cape May frontman Clinton St. John, whose hard worn rural imagery both sets the thematic tone for the record marks the boundaries of its scope. The first single “Convict Escapes” thumps with a weary stomp/clap beat counting off the last lonesome seconds in the life of the titular n’er-do-well. Midway through the track horns crop up like reeds through the surface of the placid lake beside which he lies down to die, mournful and lovely, imbuing the tableau with the dying man’s sense of bitterness and resignation as the Singers chant: “If the world does fall / I won’t flinch / If the world explodes / It won’t mean nothin’ to me.” Much of the albums grace manifests in these painterly moments, like the careful description of a girl standing in a river at the beginning of “Alomeia,” or the accordion lament on album-best “The Last of Jim Prior.” Singers is possessed of much of the same homespun charm that endears an act like the Tallest Man on Earth with the same lush economy of sounds.

Whereas Tallest Man’s acclaim comes largely from mining deeply the vein of one influence, the Singers ping fleetingly off of everyone from Modest Mouse (“Convict Escapes”) to Paul Simon (“Alomeia”) to Saves the Day (“Swill and Grits”) in service of a dusky pastoral gestalt. The seams where these bands cleaved themselves to each other are apparent, even accentuated, because here those seams are flush and flattering. A legion of voices, both literal and figurative, emerge over the course of the album’s length, but despite the relative brevity of Singers each voice ambles leisurely as it flexes, fades, and ultimately finds its own footing.

The odds against reproduction being what they are, it behooves us now to enjoy the one record born of that alchemy. The reason that Pale Air Singers sat on my desk for quite some time because it isn’t a loud record in any sense of the word. It doesn’t rock, it shuffles. It isn’t the avatar for one or many gregarious individual personalities. It bespeaks no rift or struggle. Its lyrics are graceful and unassuming. It isn’t a record that demands repeated listens, but it is a record that rewards them. This would be high praise even if Singers weren’t the product of such a potentially problematic artistic polyglot. But it was. And however unlikely here it is, a Pentecostal tribute to the possibility of collaboration—a holy and fiery-tongued union of a multitude of languages into one.