By Reed Fischer
By Anna Gulbrandsen
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It's a Sunday afternoon and Ryan Lee is sitting in one of the oversized booths at the Loring Pasta Bar. His green fingernail polish shows little sign of distress as he nonchalantly massages the side of his glass. The thin, carefully spaced spikes of his red hair appear quite unfamiliar with the flattening effects of a hard hat or the sweat of manual labor. Though Lee's demure comportment doesn't suggest long hours with jackhammers and rivets, there is this sense of industry, a finessed sort of metallurgy that pervades Lee's debut release The Pride Before the Fall. Eric Smith's drums rumble along with brittle insistence, Lee's vocals are given a metallic buzz, while Matthew Freed's bass shivers below it all and samples clank and clamor in the crevices of nearly every song. The album's dynamic, intimate postmodern pop rivals anything released by a Twin Cities band in the past year.
As mature as his songwriting is, Lee came late to music. Originally from Janesville, Wisconsin, the 28-year-old musician studied drama for a couple of years in college before dropping out "to do the whole starving actor thing," as he puts it. "That always seemed exciting to me." Exciting maybe, but mostly frustrating, plus there's the whole starvation thing. Lee says it was the creative constraints he experienced with theater that eventually led him to songwriting.
"Songwriting just came along and hit me so hard, so unexpectedly. It was more of a release for me than taking directions from a director. I could write whatever I wanted to and sing whatever I wanted to," he says.
Similar in spirit to Halloween, Alaska, or Wilco's Yankee Hotel Fox Trot, The Pride Before the Fall offers technology-enhanced melodiousness and song structures that have been opened up and allowed to breathe. Lee's adventuresome approach to instrumentation is apparent from the first track on the album, "I Pretend," an eerie tale of a married man who's being stalked by a male would-be home-wrecker. It begins with shimmering, strung-out sitar lines that give way to resonant percussive thuds. But as is common throughout the album, the song's churning, hip-hop-flavored rhythms are wound tightly, allowing Lee's beleaguered vocals to be cradled by the synths that hover warmly in the emptying space.
That approach continues on "You (the Obvious)." Here, Lee, Freed, and Smith marry their rumbling rhythms with sweet and gentle melodic lines, creating a moment that is heavy with vulnerability. When Lee pines, "I still hope for the worst/I guess that's the saddest part/But I could still force a smile if you wanted me to," you can picture him curled up in tangled bed sheets, pleading into the phone. At the end of the song, intermittent chimes from a glockenspiel lend the proceedings an indie nursery-rhyme feel.
Lee's sometimes off-center approach to lyrics (he insists he never writes about "girls") is most evident on "Policia Falsa," a song he wrote about being mugged at knifepoint a few years ago on a beach in Rio De Janeiro. It begins appropriately enough with an industrial growl, and soon Lee's heavily processed voice laments, "I can't find a way to bring back one single piece of dignity/Because you feed the fear that will always be inside of me/And after this I will never cry for you."
"I guess I just write about stuff that I don't like to talk about," Lee says. "The name of the album reflects a sort of inevitable vulnerability. I guess I kind of just wanted to stay locked up in my basement."
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