Strangers in Town
The Twin Cities abound with reverse hometown heroes--niche market artists who reap far-flung accolades while enjoying relative obscurity here. Franz Kamin, Cordell Klier, Chris Cunningham, Adam Johnson--the roster of internationally recognized local music-makers you've probably never heard of could easily fill both sides of a cocktail napkin. Some, like Berlin-based, ex-Minneapolitan laptopper Jacob Mandell, vamoose, opting for smaller frogdom in exchange for wetter ponds. Others seem perfectly comfy with being famous for 15 blocks. Tony Glover, for instance, might rarely be recognized outside of the West Bank, but he can walk around Richfield with the knowledge that his name is revered by blues aficionados from Vladivostok to San Diego.
Sean Connaughty hasn't won a neighborhood yet, although the guitarist and painter seems deeply entrenched at Lyn-Lake's Soo Visual Arts Center. A near-legend among near-legends, Connaughty's rep hinges mostly on his fretwork and vocals for Minneapolis-based psychedelic bands Salamander and Vortex Navigation Company. While neither is the touring kind, both outfits boast discs on Camera Obscura--the well-disseminated, Melbourne-based psych, folk, and psych-folk label whose alignment with Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine and the sadly flatlined Terrastock festival have helped make it a favorite among lovers of nouveau acid rock.
On Five Hands Tall, his second solo release (and first on Salamander bassist Dave Onnen's Mutant Music label), the righteous snarl he sometimes wields in ensembles is absent, as are the bands' occasional forays into songdom. Low-key and focused, Connaughty plays improvising acoustic troubador, freestyling like Burl Ives on a cocaine and Courvoisier bender over nuanced muleskinner drones. Keeping his playing and singing simple and repetitive affords the mental leeway Connaughty needs to pull the album's spontaneous narrative out of his ass.
"Glory, glory hallelujah/Teacher hit me with a ruler," he begins, by way of introducing one of the album's principal characters on album opener "Glory One." Glory, a young woman who "ran with a wicked crowd and didn't give a damn for you and me," comes and goes throughout the disc, like the shadowy Mr. Whittaker, "who knows a thing or two about baking." At his best--as when he rhymes "synapses" with "synopsis"--Connaughty could give Aesop Rock a run for his money. His occasional faltering moments work better still, endowing the album's bedroom surrealism with a goofy outsider charm.
At first glance--and listen--Huntley Miller, a.k.a. Cepia, couldn't have less in common with Connaughty. On Dowry, his five-track solo debut, the recovering bass guitarist's weapon of choice is a Mac G4 laptop. Miller deploys the computer mostly in the service of IDM (intelligent dance music), a strain of electronica that relies on melody, harmony, and personality as well as the usual beats and novel sounds. The EP is meticulously composed and obsessively tweaked. It had to be. While powerful enough to be favored by a slew of academic composers, Max, the software Miller uses, can only do what he tells it--exactly.
Despite the fuss inherent in digital sound creation, Miller is as intrepid as his improvising review-mate. Adventurous even for IDM, he strays from his chosen genre's wide and crooked path altogether on side-enders (this is vinyl!) "Countrytime" and "L2," eschewing all but the faintest trace of beat in pursuit of the drone- and texture-based sublime. Plus, unlike purely loop-based efforts, Miller's tracks are "through-composed"-fancy-pants jargon for music in which every measure is at least slightly different from the others. His appetite for abstraction renders the end result playfully baroque and surprisingly warm-blooded.
The richly contrapuntal meat of Dowry differs from Five Hands' muscle-driven near-loops in a couple of ways: Miller has to figure out and program all the minor variations that come naturally to Connaughty as he devotes most of his brainpower to maintaining a story line. Plus, Miller's stuff is as thoroughly baked as Connaughty's is red in the center. Apart from that--and the obvious sonic dissimilarities--the artists are like legumes on a knife. Neither depends on music for a living. They both record at home. Most importantly, Miller's label, the Detroit-based Ghostly International, is the electronic equivalent of Camera Obscura, an idiosyncratic indie beast whose tentacles reach every corner of the globe. Somewhere, perhaps, dwells an extremely geeked-out polymath who loves both discs. But (s)he probably doesn't live here.
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