A welcome addition to the baroque grunge canon and a timely revisionist call for acceptance and empathy
Listening to his favourite Beatles album growing up, Caleb Nichols began noticing a gnawing desire within himself to know something, that weighed on his mind To uncover a truth. He had a question to pose to Lennon & McCartney, born of the confusing feelings he was wrestling with. What specifically had made Abbey Road’s Mean Mr Mustard so unjustly mean? What barrage of life events had conspired to rob him of his dignity, agency and ultimately his joy, to the extent that he ended up alone, destitute and mouthing obscenities at passers by, in his senior years? Unable to get clarity from the songwriting duo, he came up with an answer all his own. Maybe it was romantic rejection or suppressed desire that formed that crack in his soul.
Currently doing a PhD in creative writing with a focus on queer ecopoetics, Nichols is no stranger to the possibilities of flamboyant language and homoerotic storytelling. Flowery metaphors embellish Run Rabbit Run, with its rhythmic talk of salted lakes of brine, pickled yellow pines and fickle woods of twine all paying tribute to both the Californian and Pacific Northwest landscapes in which the musician has called home.
Bolstering the speakers with plump and pillowy layers of acoustic guitar and booming drum, that feel firmly at odds with his tender willowy vocals, on tracks such as the contentedly plodding Captain Custard and Listen To The Beatles, Elliott Smith comparisons can’t be escaped. Being released on the same label, Kill Rock Stars, as Smith’s breakthrough albums Elliott Smith and Either/Or, on (I Fell in Love On) Christmas Day there are more explicit references to the late singer with its lyrical nods to the Portland emo icon’s early oughts soundtrack efforts, namely Good Will Hunting’s Miss Misery and Needle In The Hay from fellow auteur Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums.
Squiggly glimpses of radio static and ominously multitracked vocals descend into Paranoid Android territory through the last third of From A Hole in the Road. Mustard’s Blues, meanwhile, is as it sounds, a sprawling bundle of improvised George Harrison inspired studio jamming and celestial cuckooing. It acts as a reprise to Listen To The Beatles and is presumably intended to echo the mental anguish Mustard underwent as he dealt with the collapse of his romantic hopes.
Ramon is a concept record about abandonment and resentment that thankfully doesn’t descend into the same vulgarities as its cantankerous subject. Rather than getting weighed down by cynicism, anger or regret, Nichols adopts some of the nonsensical refractions, amorous positivity and otherness for which his Liverpudlian heroes were famed to create an enigmatic work of same sex complexity. It feels like not only a welcome addition to the baroque grunge canon but a timely revisionist call for acceptance and empathy for society’s forgotten and often misunderstood characters.