One of a host of restlessly inventive, ambitious young musicians who emerged from Brooklyn during the latter years of the 2000s, DM Stith hasn’t quite garnered the same levels of acclaim as better known contemporaries like Vampire Weekend, MGMT or Grizzly Bear. That’s probably partly because he’s hardly the most prolific of artists; he waited until he was almost 30 before getting around to releasing his first album, 2009’s Heavy Ghost, while still juggling music with a parallel career as a graphic designer.
Stith’s debut was worth the wait, however. A meticulously arranged collection of carefully layered, claustrophobic and sometimes challenging songs, it combined slivers of sublime melody with uneasy skittering beats, lush orchestration and choral harmonies. Although a sense lingered that its whole was less than the sum of its parts, it was nevertheless a confident, intriguing introduction that received very favourable reviews.
Since then, not a lot seems to have happened. To be fair to Stith, he has spent a lot of time on the road (with Sufjan Stevens, among others) and collaborating with his friend John-Mark Lapham, formerly of UK/US quartet The Earlies, under the band name The Revival Hour, including releasing an album – Scorpio Little Devil’ – in 2013. But a follow up to Heavy Ghost has remained elusive. Until now.
In between his other commitments mentioned above, Stith was quietly stockpiling several albums’ worth of new songs and following recording sessions with producer Ben Hillier, who includes Blur, Depeche Mode and The Maccabees on his long CV, he has re-emerged with Pigeonheart. It’s clear immediately that he has lost none of his creativity or idiosyncratic compositional style during the intervening years since Heavy Ghost. In fact, it feels very much like the next stage in the journey, with a similar approach counterbalanced by some subtle shifts in sound and mood.
With its eerie organ and hushed vocal, opening track Human Torch would fit very comfortably on Heavy Ghost but Stith’s next offering Sawtooth is a different kettle of fish entirely. Far more electronic in texture than anything on his debut, its cascades of pulsating synthesisers give Stith’s music an additional energy rarely seen before. Summer Madness varies the tempo again, with its gentle, twinkling guitar and percussion sharing Vampire Weekend’s nod to the African timbre of Paul Simon’s Graceland.
As Pigeonheart unfolds, Stith’s preference for electronics over the classical instruments of his debut continues. Up To The Letters starts off like the acoustic Sufjan Stevens of Seven Swans before morphing into a bizarre, warped sci-fi Western soundtrack, while the spacey electro of My Impatience ebbs and flows beautifully before fading out in waves of reverb.
At other times, his imposing arranging skills come to the fore, most impressively on the closing title track – four minutes of polyphonic, monk like chanting that recalls Björk’s Medúlla album.
Overall though, Stith’s second album retains the frustrations of his debut. The songs feel fragmented, with lots of memorable moments – a gorgeous chord change here, an inspired juxtaposition of sonic ingredients there – but very rarely are they memorable as complete compositions. Listening to Pigeonheart is like trying to piece together a dream after waking; elements of magical clarity that struggle to coalesce into a cohesive whole. That Stith is a considerable talent is beyond question. But two albums in, whether he will ultimately fulfil it is less clear.