Common Prayer is the side project of Jason Russo, former bassist in Mercury Rev and also of the Brooklyn based band Hopewell. For the recording and release of There Is A Mountain, Russo switched location to the English village of Steventon and hooked up with Big Potato, the label formed by Neil Halstead. The result is a loose, rickety and ramshackle album that is not without charm. This is an album largely of spirited strum and campfire singalong, even if the lyrics often concern trouble and strife. The name of the project seems appropriate – these are songs of everyday faith and hope.
The opening eponymous song sets the tone, with an infectious chorus set to arpeggiated guitar and a range of percussive sampled sound. Russo’s vocal is endearingly wayward and ragged, his own lyric perfectly encapsulating its sound (“I’ve been singing in and out of tune/ It’s always been to you”). It is a knowingly shaky voice, but one that still sings with confidence and purpose.
Elsewhere, there’s a lot of rattle and clatter. Hopewell, seemingly named after Russo’s other band, is transparently inspired by The Flaming Lips‘ Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. It has a similar clamorous drum sound to that captured by Dave Fridmann, but it lacks Wayne Coyne’s wide-eyed sense of awe, instead sounding more strident and insistent. Us Vs Them marries whimsical piano lines to a heavy stomp reminiscent of Crazy Horse. Here, Russo perhaps takes this approach too far – the execution here is a little heavy-handed and the song is buried by the battering ram arrangement.
Much better are the songs that veer closer to a warped form of folk music. Marriage Song, particularly, is somehow joyous in spite of its ominous central chant (“it’s a long way down”). The combination of strings and junkyard percussion is bold and effective and its sudden switches of mood are unexpected and exciting. Sara G is unashamed about being something approaching a campfire singalong – a bit like The Polyphonic Spree discovering the blues. It’s not particularly subtle, but it has its own appeal.
Russo has often been compared with the late, great Mark Linkous. This is perhaps most clearly in evidence on Of Saints, this album’s most straightforward and conventional song. Here, Russo’s voice adopts some of the vulnerability Linkous so memorably conveyed but he lacks Linkous’ ability to conjure up eerie, unusual worlds with idiosyncratic images. Not only this, but even the most skeletal arrangements here are far from Linkous’ wispy, singular musical dreams. Russo’s songs tend to come with more bluster and overstatement. Of Saints, at the peak of its arrangement, might even be accused of bombast.
The hymnal finale to There Is A Mountain seems to sum up Russo’s purpose perfectly. It’s another elegiac chorus, this time with a tone of resignation as Russo’s choir sings “this could be the last time my friend”. Russo clearly aspires to sensitive, attuned writing. Sometimes he achieves it here, but sometimes the stomp and plod threatens to undermine his occasional gracefulness.