Little Wings Black Grass

[Marriage; 2011]

Styles: lo-fi folk
Others: Be Gulls, Phil Elverum, Palace Music, Bon Iver

A prolific musical and visual artist, Kyle Field is a songwriter well-connected and well-loved in many indie circles, albeit one with a somewhat shabby net presence. (FUN FACT: Search “Little Wings” on YouTube, and this is the first thing that comes up). Black Grass, Field’s first Little Wings record in four years, picks up more or less where 2007’s Soft Pow’r left off, shying further away from the jarring tape manipulation and lo-fi psychedelia that characterized Grow. Although the somberness can become a bit oppressive at times, his stripped-down explorations of Americana often reveal a strange beauty at their heart.

Field’s steadfastness to his bare-bones aesthetic remains an asset. The sense of warmth and intimacy of the record persists, even when he inches away from the analog world of acoustic guitar, light percussion, and occasional piano accompaniment and into the digital jungle of minimalist electronics. There’s a hushed quality to the instrumentation that pushes Field right to the forefront of the arrangements, which, in truth, can be a little tough at times. His voice is certainly a versatile instrument, as capable of pulling off the breathy delivery of “Mr. Natural” as it is of hitting the high notes on “Come Fall,” and there’s no denying the loveliness of his ghostly backing vocal harmonies on tracks like “I Grow Too” and “Black Grass.” Nonetheless, he can sometimes lapse into a kind of flat sing-talking that, at its most extreme, reminds me of a particularly mopey David Berman. Album opener “Gold Teeth” was a difficult entry point for me on this score, and even at less than two minutes, “Keep Joking” feels like a long slog because of it. Beyond reproach, however, is Field’s skill as a wordsmith. There’s a texture to his verses, a thickness and heft such that you could almost roll them between your fingers. They are endlessly enthralling, even when they skirt literal interpretation.

When all of Little Wings’ virtues come together in a single track, the results can be breathtaking. “How Come?” is at once the most solemn and urgent offering, placing a mournful acoustic guitar and piano against a steady hi-hat tremble and Field’s hallucinatory meditations on regret and impermanence: “Could is good/ Should is beaked and feeding/ Some things drift again/ But the new survives repeating.” Best of all is “Fall Skull,” a gospel hymn set to a watery hip-hop backbeat. Field’s wordplay is at its lushest here, from the decadently alliterative chorus to the shifting, mercurial rhythm of the verses. Biblical evocations of the Fall, which act as a recurring motif threaded among the album’s autumnal imagery, reaches its fever pitch, the “pusher” serpent of “Gold Teeth” coming full-circle to “eating from Eve’s hand” in the song’s final moments.

Black Grass finds Field leveraging his strengths as a songwriter and branching out in subtle ways, whether exploring the broken soul beats or flirting with rock ’n’ roll dynamism, as he does in the title track. The result is a surprisingly diverse listening experience that should appeal to audiences beyond the bearded boundaries of folk enthusiasts. But, hey, maybe it’s not your thing. That’s cool. You’ll always have this to go back to.

Links: Little Wings - Marriage

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