The Big Pink

Years after big-label Balloon Guy deflated his passion for making music, Matt Olson returns to his songcraft in Smattering

Likewise, Rajah Pink flows with languid, literate ease. Upon hearing the record, you might classify the quartet as a mob of bookish mopes who are content to work knobs and refine their liquid chords. But another listen reveals a shimmery lilt and hopeful expansiveness in its rolling keyboard-guitar patterns.

Where this newfound sonic inspiration comes from is hard to tell. When Olson cites influences, indie bands are almost an afterthought. He refers to British painter David Hockney and Tolstoy's "The Kreutzer Sonata." He nearly leaps at me from across a low coffee table while grandly quoting his hero, Argentine poet-philosopher Borges: "Everything written is autobiographical!" Indeed, Rajah Pink lifts from highbrow culture to illustrate lowbrow band life. Its title comes from a New York Times description of a caftan sported by designer Yves Saint Laurent in 1960s Morocco. The track "Hallowed" borrows from a London tabloid headline heralding the death of Khmer Rouge warlord Pol Pot. More directly, the opening "All for Show" revisits Olson's hesitant return to music--grinding its self-loathing title into the refrain of the coda.

You can detect Olson's frenetic emotional pulse while watching the band perform--he's renowned for his quick-fire stage banter--but not so much on Smattering's early recordings. Hearing Rajah Pink's aching lullabies for the first time brings to my mind a rather lonely childhood moment: lying tucked into bed at nightfall on a summer's day, the sound of older kids still playing outside, a feeling of contentment mixed with resignation permeating the room. Sometimes Smattering's innocent-seeming, bittersweet pull can be powerful enough to make you giggle and weep at once.

From elliptical to oblique: Smattering members (left to right) Bill McGuire, John Carroll Seitz, Scott Tretter, Matt Olson
Daniel Corrigan
From elliptical to oblique: Smattering members (left to right) Bill McGuire, John Carroll Seitz, Scott Tretter, Matt Olson

This tonal complexity might owe its success in part to Rutili, who has become a kind of guru to Olson. (Perhaps in tribute, Bom boasts a buoyant reading of Rutili's acoustic anthem "Braindead.") The Red Red Meat man drove his mom's Cadillac from his Chicago home to take part in the weeklong recording of Smattering's untitled, who-knows-when next release. The four agree that the nearly finished record is "huge"--I'll agree--and pushes the periphery of Rajah Pink's soundscape. The unmixed, moody tracks "Now That I'm 16" and "Prestige of Evil," and the haunting postmortem note "What a Friend Might Say," cut to the gut. The record will likely be released on Rutili's Perishable Records label--as big-league as Olson plans to get at this point.

"He said when we have whatever songs we want to put out, in whatever format, just call and he'll get started," Olson beams.

Until then, there's the blushing Rajah Pink. Someone once told the singer that each listening to Smattering reveals a different layer: first sexy, another confusing, a third sad, a fourth more hopeful--like getting to know a painting. Olson approves of this and what it says about his songs: "It grew into something else depending on how he felt."

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