Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Cotton Jones - Paranoid Cocoon

Paranoid Cocoon is one of those rare albums that reminds me of exactly why I like to review new releases. Sure, it's always enjoyable and perversely self-satisfying to rip some off where the scab used to be or to twist the knife a little deeper on a particularly heinous album. But any critic who says he always enjoys throwing darts at truly horrible albums that litter the world is either lying or a complete prick; no critic wants to endlessly punish his ears with such musical garbage. Most of us critics are, at least underneath the cynical and grouchy exteriors we display, hardcore if slightly unbalanced fans who just want to hear great music.

Cotton Jones Basket Ride is the latest vehicle for Maryland-based (and here comes that dreaded term) singer/songwriter Michael Nau, perhaps best known among indie psychotics for his work with Page France. That band would eventually release three albums that earned Nau comparisons to Jeff Tweedy and Conor Oberst (but shit, every quasi-sensitive singer/songwriter is compared to Oberst these days).

Nice company certainly, but such comparisons are woefully inadequate in trying to describe the sheer beauty and depth of Paranoid Cocoon. It's airy and atmospheric without sounding overly precious or dainty, musically textured and complex without being obtuse or inaccessible. It incorporates various genres and styles flawlessly; elements of folk and pop exist comfortably with the album's more experimental tendencies. Keyboards, guitars, strings, occasional horns and subtle percussion interweave to create lush and highly melodic structures; songs like "Up a Tree (Went This Heart I Have)," "By Morning Light," "Gotta Cheer Up" and "Blood Red Sentimental Blues" shuffle and sway with intricately woven arrangements. Both the main and background vocals float above the instruments. With a slight echo and hazy distance applied, Nau's voice occasionally sounds a bit like a slightly deeper version of M. Ward, though the vocal approach taken often differs from song to song. Though at times the music is reminiscent of Spiritualized in their more pensive and restrained moments, the album's overall sound is highly unique and equally hard to neatly define.

In keeping with the album's dreamlike quality, the lyrics are almost always impressionistic, vague and surreal. Though it's tempting to apply armchair psychology to the songs and interpret them in such terms, especially given the album's title, only a fool would claim to fully understand the lyrics. A variety of themes are suggested; several songs are sung from the point of view of a solitary figure, sometimes stranded in the rain and seemingly lost and lonely in an indifferent world. Specific phrases and images (especially pastoral ones) are repeated and recur throughout the album, usually accompanied with a heavy dose of melancholy and bleak humor. Certainly a sense of mental conflict and anguish is frequently implied, especially in "Up a Tree (Went This Heart I Have)," its companion song "Gone the Bells," "Cotton and Velvet" ("They got me talking to the bluebirds/ Honey honey where have I gone"), and "By Morning Light," where Nau deadpans: "I was crying just to see a tear/ Because I realized I hadn't cried all year/ It's getting better now."

Other songs explore themes of restlessness and movement. The ubiquitous train is mentioned often; it's used in closing song "I Am the Changer" before the narrator offers an ambiguous sentiment: "Everything has turned around/ Been waiting for a little change/ And when it finally came/ I just waited for another."

Paranoid Cocoon is a quietly insistent album that doesn't need screams, shouts and jagged guitars to make its presence felt. Its arrangements and vocals are atmospheric without being overproduced or cluttered, while its lyrics offer glimpses into their meaning without being incomprehensible. Music fans looking for an album that defies easy categorization would be well served to start here.

by Eric Whelchel

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