The best album title of the year so far, on a record label called Asthmatic Kitty. Twenty-five tracks, none more than two-and-a-half minutes long (some as short as 51 seconds), with titles including Splashdowns Hold The Hymnal Together, Fresh And Bitter From The Same Spring, Sonar Sends Bells To And Fro, Look The Clouds Have Got You Again, and Concentric Groups Of Mirrored Loops. Who on Earth could not desire this?
Stowaways (as we’ll conveniently shorten it to), is a beautiful, happy, life-fulfilling set of tunes from John Ringhofer. Erstwhile trombonist with Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoisemakers, he’s a man who should be extremely glad the indie underground exists, because he probably isn’t very well suited to a life doing anything other than making slightly bonkers folkish ditties on an equally bonkers set of instruments.
When he’s not doing this, he spends most of his time living rent-free in a church. The result is a pared-down, spartan and yet at the same time sky-filling set of tunes that effuse biblical searching and bedsit philosophy at the same time. Not quite aligned with nu-folk, not quite as off-kilter as bands like The Decemberists, nowhere near as dark and damaged as Conor Oberst, but endearingly reminiscent of all three.
It’s nothing if not quirky. Ringhofer’s high-pitched vocals are disconcertingly feminine in places, while his instruments aren’t afraid to sound as though they’d be more at home on a ’60s west coast pop offering than a 21st century download, when they’re not being entirely shunted aside in favour of handclaps.
Stowaways is Ringhofer’s fifth studio album, and the first in five years – the latest instalment in a career that stretches back (just) to the last century and consistently turns out tracks that are far too short for radio, and too idiosyncratic to categorise. Full of references to God and bible myths, sung with religious fervour completely devoid of irony yet far too cool for Christian radio, he’s like a twisted folk Nick Cave, born, surely, to play the Union Chapel one day (he hasn’t, yet, but perhaps we should start a petition).
Jig happily to Set Your Beams (one of the longer tracks at 2.04), hear half-imagined influences of Sgt Pepper in Resting In The Current and try to imagine what exactly the weird slide-kazoo things on Brooks Embracing Burdens might be. Either way, the experience is challenging, fresh, exciting and innovative. Unique, in its own way, but sliding nicely enough into recognisable brackets to be easy on the ear, Stowaways is a nice little gem to think about adding to the Christmas wishlist.