Monday, August 23, 2010

Cotton Jones: Tall Hours in the Glowstream

Cotton Jones
Tall Hours in the Glowstream
Rating: 3.5/5.0
Label: Suicide Squeeze

The best name an Elephant 6 group never thought of, Cotton Jones Basket Ride reportedly began as a side project for Michael Nau, best known for his work with Page France. With Page France still showing no signs of a pulse as of 2010 - at least we won't have to hear any more nonsense about them being a Christian rock band - this detour has since developed into the musician's main creative avenue. The name would eventually be shortened to the more sensible Cotton Jones by the time of their debut Suicide Squeeze full-length, Paranoid Cocoon, an undervalued album whose psych-folk arrangements, slow, deliberate vocals courtesy of both Nau and fellow Page France member Whitney McGraw and dark-gray, impressionistic imagery marked a clear shift from Page France's indie-pop style and subject matter.

Follow-up album Tall Hours in the Glowstream is almost every bit as good and should make Page France feel even more like a distant memory for anyone still pining for that band's return. Nau and McGraw incorporate almost all of the key elements from Paranoid Cocoon without it ever sounding like a rehash: an atmospheric, smoky mix of organ, synths and steel guitar, occasional touches of lo-fi and two disparate voices that blend well together. Songs like "Sail of the Silver Morning" and "Place at the End of the Street" combine a '60s folk-guitar jangle with percussion, reverb and various other layers of instrumentation, working in various genres without sounding exactly like any of them. The dreamy, ethereal quality that shaped much of Paranoid Cocoon can also be heard on "Song in Numbers," "Dream on Columbia Street," the instrumental "Goethe Nayburs" and "Soft Mountains Shake," the last of which sounds like an undiscovered Peco's Blues outtake. All these songs are defined by an emphasis on melody and structure - the various musicians that play on these songs do a superb job - though each track takes a different approach in how that emphasis plays out.

But perhaps the most immediately recognizable and lasting aspect of Glowstream is how Nau and McGraw utilize their voices, both separately and in tandem. Nau sings in an expressive, pseudo-country twang, while McGraw's softer vocals feel like they float over these songs. Nau's vocals tend to be less muddled and more up front than they were on Paranoid Cocoon, most noticeably on "Somehow To Keep It Going," "Glorylight and Christie" and album highlight "Man Climbs Out of the Winter," a woozy steel guitar song whose lines about the passage of time are among the album's finest and most affecting. McGraw's vocals are likewise more prominent than on previous Cotton Jones records; she sometimes sings alone but more frequently underscores Nau's voice, an approach that succeeds best on album closer "No Things I Need (Like Some Time Ago)."

Out of these vocals come repeated references to mountains, sunbeams, water, flowers, rolling rivers, rain and weather systems. Though nearly every song expresses nostalgia for days long gone and also contain plenty of ecological wonder, they are tempered with images of mortality, aging and, thanks to the way the vocals interact, simple, sad regret. For all of its sonic playfulness, Glowstream is frequently introspective and subdued: "I number the years... I number the hours," Nau says at one point, later repeating a similar sentiment with the equally prosaic, if grammatically incorrect line, "We was feeling about twice our age/ Sitting in the pouring rain." Though it's Page France that first put Nau on that tiny indie map, with songs as good as those of both Paranoid Cocoon and Tall Hours in the Glowstream, it's likely that what began as a side project with a strange name will soon be what both Nau and McGraw can hang their reputations on.

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