Stepping out from the reverb chamber in which the Fleet Foxes dwell comes J Tillman, their sticksman and the world’s newest member of the singing drummer club. Tillman has been releasing albums since 2004 on the hush-hush and in very limited numbers, but on the back of the Foxes’ incredible success last year, Bella Union have taken his latest collection of lo-fi songs and brought them to a brand new audience.
The lack of reverb on this album is just one of the stylistic distinctions between this solo sojourn and the day job. Sparseness is the order of the day. The bedrock of these songs consists of barely-strummed acoustic guitars and Tillman’s dry, rasping voice low down in the mix. But the sparseness extends to song structure too. Master’s House and the brief All You See almost come in waves, falling silent in between each line. It positively reeks of late-nights and a sleepy disposition that some may write off as dull but fans of Will Oldham and Iron and Wine will certainly dig most heartily.
It’s on more developed songs like No Occasion where Tillman starts to earn his stripes though. Gently added piano and strings take him nicely into Nick Drake territory, with a softly cooed chorus line similar to Radiohead‘s Pyramid Song. Firstborn is gorgeous also, a simple motif mapped out by mandolin and multi-layered harmonies that’s as impressive and affecting as anything on the Fleet Foxes record. Others though, like James Blues are just too bare and short to really get under your skin, and make you question whether some of what’s included here are just sophisticated demos that make for a slightly unsophisticated album.
Thankfully Tillman includes a few full-band cuts that jolt the listener back from mild torpor. New Imperial Grand Blues brims with belching brass and heavy drums, while Steel On Steel is pleasantly rockist and familiar, in the context of an album that has only a fleeting taste of anything mainstream and “classic” about it. Lines like “All things pass, just ash to ash” are a tiny bit trite but the lilting pedal steel guitars and mellotron (played by Foxes’ keyboardist Casey Westcott) are all perfectly pitched and make Steel On Steel probably the album’s trump card. It’s a peach.
This certainly isn’t an essential album by any means, and perhaps a retrospective of Tillman’s previous five albums and EPs might have been a better introduction. But it definitely deserves to be heard by more people than just hardcore Fleet Foxes fans, and will provide slow-coustic comfort for night owls everywhere.