Little Me Will Start a Storm
Tender Loving Empire
It was 2007 when we last had an album, “Paper the Walls In,” from Loch Lomond. In the interim, Bend native and refugee of the band The Standard, Ritchie Young and his troupe of versatile bandmates, have traveled all over the map: including on national tours opening for the Decemberists and Blitzen Trapper.
In addition, they put out a couple of EPs in 2009, to serve as a sort of bridge between full-length releases. Depending upon whether or not you include the first Loch Lomond album, which was more or less a Ritchie Young solo project, this is their second or third album. There are three officially released EPs in circulation as well, although, it is a good bet that there are other recordings floating around.
What has become a familiar cast supports him- including vocalist Jade Eckler, keyboardist Laurel Simmons (who also contributes mandolin and vocals), drummer Scott Magee (with vocals and clarinet) and Dave Depper and Jason Leonard. The two of them alternate between a cavalcade of instruments, way too numerous to mention. But. Besides the obvious bass, guitars and keys, the two of them toss in autoharp, banjo, harmonica, glass harp, kalimba, glockenspiel and all kinds of other crazy stuff.
Such a broad palette of musical colors affords Young the opportunity to experiment with mood and texture, style and form.- something which he does continuously and, generally, quite well. Whether it is the songs that determine the instrumentation, or the instruments that influence the songs- at some point, it really doesn’t matter.
The result is a sort of avant organic folk orchestra. Too claustrophobic to be a concert orchestra. Too versatile to be a chamber orchestra. They are a new animal. Comparisons to the Decemberists are fair- as far as they go. Sufjan Stevens had a similar “melting-pot” aggregation in operation a few years ago, although he has lately seemed to move away from that.
This journey begins with “Blue Lead Fences,” which is driven by Young’s propulsive picking on violin, ala a mandolin. It’s possible there is a real mandolin in there too. There is a certain sort of Decembrists sensibility to the song. Vocally, here, Young sounds a tad like the Meloy boy- a craggy nasal whine- spinning a mystical tale too obscure to fully grasp. Dylan Thomas-like childhood recollections? Perhaps. “Throwing air and throwing rocks/sharpened boards and ponds/an eight-year old having fun/lets organize the weaker ones/with enough wind, I can fly/Call them up and say goodbye.” A sort of imagistic shorthand.
More on the chamber side is “Elephants & Little Girls.” Wispy strings dance haltingly in the dappled glockenspiel light. Beautiful, angelic vocal harmonies, reminiscent of those on Elton John’s “Love Song,” (from Tumbleweed Connection) augment Young’s Thom Yorke/Neil Young tenor falsetto anguished wail. A beautiful chorus propels the song into a lovely vocal chant. Delightful viola/ mellotron interplay at the end, sweep the song: a way a lone a last a loved a long the… A moving piece of work. A great song.
Not withstanding the title, it’s a good bet the moony ballad, “I Love Me” is autobiographical: “Ritchie’s body is swelling/oh it’s swelling like a can/and he thinks his body, oh his body, his body is a man/and his friends think it’s funny/to watch him worry worry about himself/and he thinks it’s funny, not to worry worry about your health.” OK. If you/he say so. But one needs always to have some concern for those who refer to themselves in the third person.
The waltz, “Blood Bank” gives every appearance of being a dreary little ditty, with a predilection for knives being brought to the lyrical fore. Delicate instrumentation, featuring croaking bass clarinet, ringing mandolin and moaning viola swaddle Young’s deep, resonant voice (here). As he relates the tale, a saintly female choir hovers near.
An odd, eventually sort of symphonic instrumental, “Water Bells” ensues, affording the bowed saw yet another opportunity for the musical spotlight in a local recording. Alan De Lay the father of the late blues harp giant, Paul De Lay, was a renowned photographer. What is not as well known is that Alan De Lay was also a virtuosic saw player- among many other things.
The recent resurgence of the saw as a musical instrument (instead of the implement it was originally designed to be) has hopefully just about run its course in the local music scene. For, much like the Theremin, whose eerie sound it somewhat resembles, it is extremely difficult to manifest accurate tonality on the damned thing. Thus far, I have yet to hear anyone near reach Clara Rockmore-like proficiency on a saw. Alan De Lay came closest. Perhaps it is time to retire this wavery-quavery novelty instrument back to the toolbox, where it belongs.
Still, once the musical saw finishes taking up sonic space, in the first part of “Water Bells,” Depper’s mellotron and Lawrence’s viola meld to form a thick, rich reverbance, augmented by guest John Whaley‘s clarion trumpet calls.
The lyric to the apocalyptic “Earth Has Moved Again” suggests, possibly Haiti or some similar scenario: “The earth has moved again/this time it has made art/where there were houses, we have water/where there were people we have none.” Musically, we have a troubadorian ballad in 3, bolstered by a throaty, guitar figure that harkens directly back to Jimmy Page’s 12-string intro to “Tangerine.” Solemn, liturgical chant becomes the motif in the vocals. Another good one.
Micah Rabwin’s saw is ostensibly put to better use on the circus-y middle section of “Water in Astoria.” Absolutely inpenetrable lyrics purport some idyll at the beach, possibly involving a piano, though that is not altogether clear. The instrumentation includes a reprise of Young’s mandolin approach to the violin, here more of a plucking pizzicato technique is employed.
A clanging banjo and choppy piano chords supplement the production. Young makes the odd musical decision to sing the main vocal line in his lower register, while simultaneously intoning a falsetto part an octave above. With so many female vocalists at his disposal, his choice to sing the part seems peculiar, in that he doesn’t sound very good here- a little out of tune.
Perhaps a key change down a 1/4th or 1/5th from D would have placed this one in a more vocally reachable range. Pastoral strings and flute dance beneath the lurching march of the arrangement
“Egg Song” is precisely the other side of that coin, with just Young’s solitary acoustic guitar accompanying ornately gorgeous choral vocal harmonies, over an enthrallingly lovely melody. Eccentric, but pleasing lyrics, oblique and opaque. “Oh the monsters they ate all of my friends, so I can relate/And oh, I’ll find the time, the time to cry/when I remember their names.” So there. Fans of David Byrne or New Pornographers would find much to enjoy this one.
The mood is cast, so “Alice Left With Stockings and Earrings” does not stray far from what came before. Tasteful, eccentric instrumentation supporting inscrutable lyrics. Something might have happened and someone might be a little bitter about the outcome, with some frustrations to vent. Around that lyrical theme circulate ethereal sounds of a “glass harp,” which is numerous goblets tuned to various pitches and played with a moistened finger. Ephemeral steel guitar, dusky clarinet and sad viola. But there is something else going on.
As a vocalist, Ritchie Young seems to be at a crossroads. He wishes to use his very evocative falsetto to sing these sometimes exceedingly sensitive and fragile little songs. But he also seems to want to employ his more sonorous register, an octave below- sometimes alternating the two on the same song. Sometimes pairing them. It sounds as if he is struggling to find his true voice. It’s a little schizophrenic.
Ritchie Young is very talented, though perhaps a bit unconventional. Still, being unconventional never hurt any one in the music business. His musical team is supplely organic, able to provide him with a panoply of unique sounds from which to arrange his pieces.
However, the band- and Ritchie Young- are still works in progress. There is not yet a definitive “Loch Lomond Sound.” While all the variety here can be exhilarating, especially for musicians to perform: it is often difficult for the typical listener to home in on a specific musical location. One wanders, becoming lost upon the steep stylistic terrain.
Still, it would only seem a matter of time before Loch Lomond coalesce into something substantial and memorable; congealing into the group which their great promise ultimately portends.