In 2010, while roaming through Facebook, I saw an ad for a new musician. The headline read something like this: “What does a thrash drummer turned songwriter sound like? Check out James Vincent McMorrow.” This question appealed to me for a few reasons. One, I pretend to be a drummer myself and have dove into the more progressive styles of rock music in my day. Second, there have been thrash, metal and alt-rock guitarists who have gone down the folk/singer-songwriter road with much success (Korn‘s Brian Head for instance). This indie artist could be a similar thing. And lastly, could this guy take some of his instrumentation with him in a singer-songwriter style? If so, he’d be making something all-together new. The newness concept is what hooked me and I listened, then bought the debut album called Early In The Morning.
We’ve featured the spread of those tracks over the past 3 years on The Appetizer Radio Show. When I worked for a public radio station, I helped get some of those songs in the regular rotation. McMorrow’s style falls in a harmony with similar artists in the folk realm like Bon Iver and William Fitzsimmons. High, falsetto vocals paired with capoed guitar and other instrumentation, telling stories about people’s journeys are the ways the music connects with you. And there’s something about that high-pitched vocal quality, especially from a guy with a relatively baritone speaking voice that hooks you.
Three years later, McMorrow is back with a new album titled Post Tropical. I’m sure there are subtle cues in that title, considering the storyline of the album and its songs deal in many ways with realizing something has changed, and not all of the change is good. There’s heart break and tragedy, there’s falling in love and mystery, and there’s something beyond all this that is unknown. The album cover shows the tropical landscape but the heart of the sound inside it is after the honeymoon is over and a stark reality lies. It’s a Coen brothers film in music (realistically portrayed in the video for Cavaliers seen HERE).
I judge albums in their entirety, and not just one or a few songs therein. We live in the digital age where singles are released from the pop mavens regularly just to sell ads and videos. One the opposite end of the platinum spectrum, artists who can’t afford studio time for a full album release a short EP with 3-5 tracks. A full album in today’s music realm is a commitment to vision. That’s what McMorrow has done with Post Tropical. As he told NPR, “I heard something in my head — the texture, the rhythm, the melody — and I pursued it until it existed. I wanted to push myself as a musician in a way I’ve never pushed myself before.” The result is a daunting storyline with a surprising ending, a stark contrast in characters and tone from the passionate love ballads of Morning like If I Had A Boat. Not that these new songs are simply downers, or that they will make you feel like you’re listening to the songwriting version of a Nicolas Sparks book. Nothing like that at all.
McMorrow takes his drum background and adds textured layers to tracks with more full instrumentation than his debut work. The three years since his indie debut has been spent diving into a more richly seasoned exploration of the sounds in his head. The passion is still there in beautifully crafted lines like “Sometimes my hands don’t feel like my own, I need someone to love, I need someone to hold” (Red Dust). Exploring the blend of strings and drums in such fluid songs like Repeating and The Lakes are further indications of a maturing songwriter.
The album released Tuesday Jan 14th. I listened to it beginning to end 4 times. Since then it’s played nearly nonstop on my desktop and iPod. That doesn’t happen with me, even when a get a new Springsteen album. There’s something mystical about the pull of Post Tropical, from the melodies and flow of Gold to the instrumentation and discovery of All Points.
We’ll spend some time diving into this album in its entirety over the course of this year. It will be an enjoyable ride.