Post-rock isn’t an easy genre to carve out your own niche in. Too pulverizing and you’ll immediately be lumped in with Swans’ apocalyptic racket. If you opt for a tense, jittery sound you’re bound to be thrown into the same abandoned quarry Slint floats in. Attempting to conquer death with skyward guitars and voluminous drums will put you right in line behind Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Even mellowing out and doing some inward exploration risks unfair Tortoise comparisons. In short, there’s no winning when it comes to operating in the post-rock genre.
Which is precisely what makes Kansas City artists Chris Shelton’s Small Victories EP so revelatory. I think of every one of those aforementioned bands when I see “post-rock” as a genre tag, but the music itself doesn’t force me to make comparisons. In fact hearing “Homework”‘s limpid guitars lines appended to a calm drum pattern, makes the comparison game nearly impossible. I can’t or don’t want to think about anything. Instead I’m far more comfortable kicking my feet up and staring endlessly out my window. The song’s dulcet background woos mirror the sigh of contentment you let out while enjoying something simple.
Not that Small Victories can be defined solely by its simplicity. As leisurely as Shelton’s guitar playing in the closing title-track sounds, it’s actually an involved latticework of tremulous runs and reverbed hiccups. Not unlike Real Estate’s sun-drenched “Talking Backwards” from earlier this year, it proves how much work goes into relaxation. A truism equally applicable to “Indigo Folds”‘ desert crawl. Though the guitar does considerably more sidewinding and the drums splay across the track, you get the sense that soon enough they’ll lay back down on some rolling hill and peer up at the stars.
If the nature references come across as trite or navel-gazing, they’re not meant to. There’s just an ease to this EP that could rarely be found in urban sprawl. Nothing, not even the flitting solo of “Parachutes” sounds anxious or confused. With Small Victories, Shelton has paved his own lane and taken his time doing it.
(You can find Small Victories as a “Name Your Price” album on Bandcamp.)
Have you ever found yourself moving closer to a speaker, desperately hoping to make out the soft-spoken words of a song? It can be an incredibly frustrating experience, particularly if you’re right in front of it and the words still seem to float right past your ears. You may be able to hear what’s going on, but you’re not able to actually listen.
“Nov. 18 1994” by Kansas-based folk/punk/experimental act Whale’s Sink possesses that same frustrating feeling. The tenderly strummed acoustic guitar and whispered vocals seem to be competing to see who is more polite. Even with its loudest chord, the guitar wouldn’t cause a ripple on a pond and the vocals couldn’t wake the lightest sleeping baby. From the moment you press play, you get the feeling you hit the mute button instead.
Granted, a mute button may be the way to go if you can actually parse the lyrics of the fragile track. With a mordantly matter-of-fact tone the song seems to recount the joyous birth of a boy, followed quickly by his death. Through the first several listens I became more and more agitated as the involuntary eulogy “This is his end, he cannot live, this is him, he is slowing, impact of today,” was mumbled. “What the hell is wrong with you?” I quite plainly asked. Far worse than taking the wrong stand on something is to back out altogether, which “Nov. 18 1994” nimbly does. But somewhere hidden in the quiet playing and downpour of tears is a superb explanation for the avoidance. Some things in life leave you so wounded that the only way to survive is to withdraw completely.
(“Nov. 18 1994” is from Whale’s Sink latest album This Kind of Primal Laughter which you can get now through their Bandcamp.)
There’s little to no information about lo-fi/experimental Kansas City band Merriweather and that mysteriousness makes all the difference. This sprawling, but cozy music could’ve come from any number of ill-lit bedrooms around the country. It’s not only region-defying though, it’s anachronistic. Guitars tremble and snake in 90s Godspeed You! Black Emperor fashion. At times they jangle and recall 60s surf-pop, as the bass slackly walks like it’s still dealing with sea legs. Gurgling synthesizer culled from a Pink Floyd space expedition travels to the year 2014.
But that out of step walk with the times wouldn’t matter if the music failed to captivate, something “Stained Glass & the Dark Cathedral” does unencumbered. The faint whirr at the beginning of the track acts as a sort of hypnosis, luring you into a world where everything is best defined in non-specific terms. Guitar strings will “squeak” after too much tremolo. That “gurgling” synth whooshes after over-use. When bass does emerge from these murky waters, it prattles for a brief moment before re-submerging. The only constant is the “faint whirr” in the background. As Nate Fisher famously said in Six Feet Under, “everything – death, life, everything – it’s all completely suffused with static.” No matter where you hail from, it’s inescapable.
Merriweather’s Building 303/Third Floor Windowsill is available now through the artist’s Bandcamp page.