To Stowaway – Depth meets simplicity in a timeless place. (Music review)
When a great deal of music passes by your desk, as it does mine, one learns to listen to the body, not always trusting the rational faculties to make the certain kinds of judgement calls one is forced to make when more music arrives than you have time to hear in a day. This is how I like to listen, with my ears first, then my belly, then my brain, seeking to rationalise sensory response in the aftermath of experience. Once the album has been heard in full by me, it ceases to exist outside of me, and I can no longer experience it separate from myself – a certain sort of colonization sets in, where I absorb it making it my own. That’s when one writes. But always crucial is that first listen, the only time the journey between myself and the sound is pure – at least it is pure if I promise to listen with my body before my mind. This is the way I was fortunate enough to hear the work of To Stowaway, a self titled album I would describe as a brief encounter with an enormity, that happened to cross my desk, and pierced the unfortunate shell repeat listening tends to build, even in the most ardent, passionate of listeners. I’m therefore left with the complex task of writing about how a small intimate album, by an unknown musician can break through the oceans of music noise to make an impact that leaves an imprint.
One is tempted to just call it ‘talent’ and no doubt that is part of it – and probably all of it. To Stowaway is, to all intents and purposes a simple album. A man a guitar, alternative folk/country influences with an obvious jazz reverence somewhere in the history of this musician, and on occasion a delightful collection of ‘friends’ to round out the simplicity to something fulsome. The songs are short, frustratingly so, because they are not ephemeral, so the listening experience is always of an early end, and yet this is part of the charm, the musician having a clever grasp on intuitive timing that leaves the listener wanting more; and yet more of this kind of simplicity might crush the grounded power of the music – this is an album referencing taste over gluttony. It is music that has been laboured over and ruthlessly edited, pared back (a Hemingway iceberg if you like) so that nothing is left but access to its enormity. It is a subtlety in a world of overindulgence and excess, particularly remarkable in the era when everyone can produce an album in their bedroom. The unwillingness of the artist to release the work until it was as it is, shows an uncharacteristic restraint in our rush-rush modern-day reach for our fifteen seconds of fame, and this is further emphasized by the length of the album.
However all of this doesn’t explain why To Stowaway is such a perpetually rich pleasure in the repeat listen. The album is unfashionably bookended by solo piano pieces, short works (1:22 and 1:27 respectively) that evoke a Michael Nyman style of image laden piano, as if the artist wanted to liberate the works contained between rather than box them in. With slight melodies that invigorate the imagination, the pieces open up a field of vivid musical provocations that play with expectations and subvert them together. Between these pieces are eight songs, the longest ‘please don’t ever let go of me’ coming in at 4:19 and the shortest, the overwhelmingly beautiful ‘in this our time’, comes in at 1:12. Each song is its own spiral inward, but together they form a vortex in a well of sophisticated depth. Refusing digital and preferring an analogue recording, the endlessness of the sound is allowed to come to the fore, aided by the subtlety of the touch of the musician. Tracks like the lyrically beautiful ‘Colorado’ and the almost catchy ‘and I’m sorry about Portland’ ground To Stowaway in its folk/alt/country genre, but other tracks such as ‘north west state’ and the aforementioned ‘in this our time’ keep the overarching mood of the album experimental and playing with its own genre tropes just as much as it adheres to them. The sound could be described as a little like later Lemonheads meets an almost Bon Iver style misty aesthetic, although To Stowaway includes enough personality to provide a complete listen in itself , so that I found I wasn’t searching for influences.
There is always something provocative about the artist that moves against the current, choosing to go deep in a world where more and more the brief encounter, the static induced broad brushstroke and the pounding information overload become the norms that we cease to question. And yet, always we remain responsive to that vertiginous leap when something catches us and allows us to groove on the delirious and inebriated momentum we feel when we’ve been touched where the wells connect.