Unplugged Amphibians Follow the Sound of Roaring Crickets

Elusive Salamander prepares for Heliotrope '05

Salamander can't really explain why their latest disc, Bent Hemlock, hangs together so well musically and thematically, though they have their theories. Bassist Dave Onnen (on whose Mutant Music label the album has been issued) credits recording in his apartment and thus being limited to acoustic bass. Guitarist Erik Wivinus blames too much H.P. Lovecraft. But the how is clearer. Both Wivinus and guitarist Sean Connaughty have been experimenting with solo-folk stylings of late, and they've peppered past albums with short acoustic respites. "When we started putting little folk songs on the other records," Wivinus explains at the band's northeast Minneapolis practice space/studio, "the guy at Camera Obscura [the band's Australian record label] told me, 'I'd like to hear you guys record a whole album's worth of this!'"

Bent Hemlock has a power and a beauty less brutal than the band's usual high-volume drama. But that doesn't mean that interplanetary improv has been lost in space. Bits of it pop up all over the record--threaded around and through songs. And "An Open Transom" concludes the record in a whir of rasping strings and delay.

Connaughty free-associates words over tunes, and comes up with mostly winners. The opening line of "The River Song" is truly memorable: "Uncle Jim/Was willing to swim/Until he heard the crickets roar." "Hail" is a Dylan-like bit of spit on a hot stove, with layers of acoustic guitars, a touch of bass, and a chime struck with nagging regularity. Wivinus's songs are less raw and intimate, but his craft serves as a contrast. "Ascension" and "Portal" could easily have popped up on a Nuggets-style comp of lost folk-psych, while the disc's opener, "Galleon," pits a pure guest vocal (from 12-year-old vocal prodigy Madeline Westby) against grim lyrics about a disastrous treasure expedition. The song helps set Hemlock's unsettling yet listenable tone.

Generation gaps are for losers: Salamander and their new collaborator, 12-year-old vocalist Madeline Westby
Daniel Corrigan
Generation gaps are for losers: Salamander and their new collaborator, 12-year-old vocalist Madeline Westby

For all their popularity in the insular worldwide underground psychedelic scene, the band's immediate concerns are local--preparing for the second annual Heliotrope Festival, which Wivinus co-curates with Pins guitarist Rich Barlow. Scheduled to appear are studio-mate Zak Sally's White Map, TVBC leader Paul Metzger, Salubrious Invertebrae, and one of the final public performances of guitarist Michael Yonkers. And, yes, Salamander and the Pins.

Salamander will perform a handful of Hemlock's songs at Heliotrope, with Westby helming "Galleon." Wivinus met Westby, then 10 years old, singing "Moon River" at a cookout for his wife's co-workers. Her first entry into the convoluted Salamander family tree was performing with Wivinus and percussionist Erik Hofferber as Confession and Recantation, backing Karl Dreyer's 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc at Red Eye Theater and the College of St. Catherine earlier this year.

The band's still floored by Westby's professionalism, and her supportive mother. Wivinus expresses surprise at Madeline's mom's willingness to let her "[play] weirdo music with weirdo artists." But it just makes sense: If I had a daughter willing to travel the music universe between pop-song standards and "Galleon's" "lust for blood and gold," I'd hope that she'd have as able co-conspirators as Salamander.

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