Brief moments of intimacy occur all around us. Once, while reading a very old philosophy book that he had checked out of the library, my best friend found a postcard tucked between the pages. He sent it to me. The mildewed picture--which probably dated back to at least 1940--showed a dark stairwell leading to a small, glowing light. "Anna," the cursive handwriting read on the opposite side, "I'm sorry about what happened. I feel horribly sad. I'll be back in a few months." For some intriguing yet unexplained reason, the man who'd written the postcard had addressed it to himself.
Discovering private artifacts from strangers' lives without having to divulge any of your own secrets to them is both exhilarating and discomforting. Which, I suppose, is exactly how one feels when listening to local slowcore artist Rivulets. Fans hear singer/guitarist Nathan Amundson murmur charged, first-person confessions, and then they simply go home. It's a slippery balance of power: The depressive balladeer controls the audience's attention, but he does so from a pretty vulnerable position.
"I have addiction issues and self-destructive tendencies. They manifest themselves in music," Amundson says in a hushed voice while drinking tea at the Montana Coffeehouse in Minneapolis's Warehouse District. "If I don't [play music] then things get kind of creepy. But, yeah, there are some songs that make me uncomfortable to play live."
Listening to Rivulets' brooding, self-titled debut gives one the feeling that she is passing by Amundson's bedroom, accidentally catching him singing to himself. (Audiences can catch him singing to a proper crowd when he performs at a CD-release party this Saturday, February 2 at the Loring Café and Bar.) His guitars and vocals are so low on the volume meter, one fears the album is pumping her full of subliminal messages. But that only contributes to its eerily cathartic dronework. Considering that Amundson moved to Minneapolis from Anchorage, Alaska, two years ago and hasn't had a lot of press in the Twin Cities, he may just be one of the best-kept secrets in the local music scene.
Which is perhaps appropriate, since many of the songs on Rivulets feel as if they've been whispered. Low's Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, as well as the Magnetic Fields' LD Beghtol, contribute to the album's atmosphere of quiet disquietude. And one of the most memorable tracks is "Lacklustre," which exhales a lo-fi hum. The song was recorded in Low's studio (Sparhawk and Parker's Chair Kickers' Union label is releasing the album), and the effect was achieved by Sparhawk adding white noise from his daughter Hollis's baby monitor.
"It sounds really tinny and compressed," Amundson observes of the song, obviously pleased with Sparhawk's innovation. "There will be a whole new scene of people who record on baby monitors now," he deadpans. "It will be called babycore."
The closest Amundson has previously come to categorizing his music is to call it "underwater folk"--a descriptor that once proved more literal than he intended. He recalls that during one Rivulets show, a man wandered into the bathroom and left the faucet running. The water streamed out from under the door and made a shallow pool by the stage. "We didn't really know what to do, so we just kept playing," he says.
It's the perfect Titanic philosophy. That sinking feeling might always be with you. But you can still sing on the way down.