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By Emily Weiss
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He may be a musician, but Paul Fonfara sees the world through the eyes of a visual artist. When he was in his 20s, living in Denver and touring with DeVotchKa, he paid the bills by selling his paintings. As a lyricist, he produces vivid and colorful writing. So it's only logical that Fonfara aims to have a video to go with each song on his new Painted Saints record, No Match for Greater Minds.
"I've always wanted to do paintings for every song. It's just finding the time that's been the challenge," Fonfara says, drinking a cup of coffee outside on a chilly mid-autumn night. He glances out toward Lake Street, where cars and semis roll noisily through the stoplight. "We deliberately made sure not to match the videos up with the vocals, but it works well because it's abstract film stuff rather than a narrative."
It's easy to imagine Painted Saints scoring an installation for an art gallery, and these films aren't far off that mark. Produced on 16mm film by Rochester artists Christ Dahl and Chris Delisle, the films' shaky, grainy images draw heavily on found footage—and are plenty abstract. One of them starts off with what looks like a volcanic explosion but is actually a fish swimming. The fish gets pulled out of the water and injected with a needle, then returns to the water, having transformed into what appears to be a man in a fish costume.
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Make of that what you will, but the inclusion of the films is plenty serendipitous. Greater Minds, it just so happens, sees Fonfara truly hitting his stride as a songwriter after spending years in the shadow of his many other bands, most recently including Spaghetti Western String Co. and the Brass Messengers. The gypsy folk tendencies and eclectic instrumentation, while not entirely absent, take a backseat to a more robust, rock-based sound. Never is this more apparent than in the thick, grimy production of "Motorcycle," the album's moody, Portishead-like opener.
"That's just how the songs came out," he shrugs, referring to the band's apparent change in direction. "I think, too, when I first came to Minneapolis, I was playing with just a cellist and a violist," he says. "On the records we added a bass player and drummer, but it was much more of an acoustic thing—whereas this one was written with a bass player and drummer in mind."
A much more direct, if inadvertent, shift could be traced back to equipment problems that cropped up during the recording sessions, delaying the release of the album for over a year as the band went back and overdubbed large portions of the songs. "We kept a lot of the drums and the guitar parts from the original sessions, but that took like seven months of overdubbing," he says. "So while we were doing that, we figured, 'If we're redoing the bass, why not do it three times and have this wall?' But it wasn't really intended in the beginning."
The songs on Greater Minds run a gauntlet of styles, paying little attention to conventional song structures or time signatures. "Whimsy Shudder Shine" is a reverb-heavy blues complete with slide guitar and strings. It could just as easily be the work of Alan Sparhawk in one of his livelier moments. Only two songs later, "Of Tornados" builds up a frantic energy that more than matches its title. But then "Sunlight Through Eyelids" has a rippling melody that gradually morphs into a mesmerizing vocal trade-off between Fonfara and Channy Caselle, whose harmonies show up throughout the album.
In fact, Fonfara's growth as a vocalist is just as pronounced as the changes elsewhere to the music. In the past, his vocals have tended to be buried deep in the mix, his delivery tentative and, in his own words, "always off-key." The difference with these new songs is night and day. "I actually feel comfortable about it," Fonfara admits. "There are places on the record where there's nothing else; it's really open. I feel a lot more confident just letting it be naked and exposed rather than hiding behind it."
It's been four years since Painted Saints put out their last album, and in that time Fonfara has become a father and renovated a foreclosed house. Now that Greater Minds is finally seeing the light of day, it could be only the beginning of his ambitions for the group. "We were going to do this as a double record, but we couldn't get all the songs recorded at the time. But we're going to record again soon because we have another 12 songs ready to go," he says, optimistically.