Stephen Steinbrink

Ugly Unknowns

(Gilgongo; 2009)

By Colin McGowan | 17 April 2009

There’s a hefty bit of indulgent inanity in all of us, I think, and, like guts, some of us are better at keeping those tendencies in check than others. ‘Cause we all know that guy who has no filter, constantly bitching about dry skin and telling painfully unfunny stories, making social situations more tumultuous for all of us. Perhaps the worst incarnation of this utter lack of self-awareness is pity-seeking depictions of haplessness—I can’t believe I’m invoking the name of FML in a review in which I’d like to maintain some shred of credibility, but indulge me for a moment (yes, irony). What the fuck, my generation? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, carry on and be thankful, but to those in the know, FML is a forum for people— one would assume solipsistic fourteen year olds, but I have loathsome peers who use this—where people punctuate gripes like “I tripped down the stairs, and everyone laughed at me—even my girlfriend!” with “fuck my life.” It’s like Twitter for those with an excessive need to complain (I suppose Twitter’s good for that, too—by the way, we have one). Curiously, there are no posts in the vein of “I’m dying of malaria, and the nearest hospital is 46 miles away. The world doesn’t seem to care,” which is weird because you’d think people with lives that fucked would, like, get a computer already.

Which leaves me at (what?) my mild concern for Stephen Steinbrink, aka French Quarter, whose sweet fireside folk could make hot chocolate shiver with delight. French Quarter (2008) was so charming in large part because of its spry arrangements, but the lyrics had a certain wistful, confused tinge to them that stirred up images of a guy staring out his window, almost a bit agoraphobic in his outlook, expressing equal parts trepidation and hope for what lay outside his home. That sort of petrified wishfulness was acutely affecting and exhibited a careful implementation of words, which was particularly intriguing coming from a songwriter just leaving his teens. It seemed John McCauley might have had a competitor in the “raw, insightful folk dude” category, and he still might, but this feels like a stumble, a scraped knee, and an unnecessary emergency room trip.

Ugly Unknowns marks a more pop-oriented approach for Steinbrink than he’s ever truly realized, but it’s hardly a departure from before: He flirts with a momentous fuzzed-out climax on “Overpass” with success, and a handful of numbers seem to daintily lilt where their French Quarter counterparts were a bit more agile. The most noticeable change is in Stephen Steinbrink’s writing style, which seems to revolve entirely around Stephen Steinbrink at this point. It’s not something easily discerned on the first go round, but there’s an amplitude of less-than-interesting self-reflection here. Exhibit A: “I know absolutely nothing about how to hold a job.” It’s a valid fear, sure, and I can relate—my English degree isn’t gonna be raking in the feta anytime soon —but at twenty, most people don’t even know how to hold their liquor and own about two ties, let alone moan like they have a martyr’s stake in the greater economic turmoil facing our world. This motif of sweating the small stuff pervades the record as Steinbrink unbuckles the belt too readily, letting his inanity gut sag over the top button of his Levi’s.

The arrangements occasionally follow suit, with Steinbrink relying on chords and melodies that grow tiresome even over the course of their meager two-to-three minute lengths. “My Best Intent” grates as Steinbrink’s tenor flits over flimsy repetition, and “In Six Days” just sort of dies and fades into the wallpaper after thirty seconds. “On Sleeping” suffers from the same sort of approach; it seems Steinbrink, in an attempt to go minimal, forgot that the appeal of his music is often rooted in the dense, fleece-blanket warmth he creates by layering lo-fi haziness on top of itself to create faux-dense chambers for his voice to echo within.

Much of the stuff here is good; I criticize because I love. The velvety layers of “Huachuca City” burble along with a sort of flowing vitality that’s remarkable and the title track’s rising chords are mournful in the perfect way. But it’s odd in the most disheartening way to see a talent regress from quaint, observational insight into “I”-centric ballads that sometimes mope and shudder like a flag in dead wind. Unfortunately, those mopes aren’t terribly compelling, and while it’s perhaps too much to compare lines like “I can’t love you like a husband” to the shallow chatter of twits, expectations frame my perception too much in this case and I can’t help but see some of these lyrics as senseless proclamations. You’re better than that, Stephen.