David Karsten Daniels Fear of Flying

[FatCat; 2008]

Styles: contemplative moon-gazing and folk styling
Others: Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Magnolia Electric Co.

With Fear of Flying, recent Seattle immigrator David Karsten Daniels has crafted another intricate and accomplished contribution to the FatCat Records catalog. This speedy follow-up to last year’s Sharp Teeth was, as are all of Daniels' solo releases, self-recorded in his home with the aid of a few friends. The funny thing is that the album couldn’t be further from the fuzzy tape-hiss and mic-clipping that this distinction might imply. While Daniels and his guest performers are able to maintain a spontaneous, one-take atmosphere in these songs, Fear of Flying boasts lush production and recordings full of brilliant nuance. Daniels is one of the few traditional modern folk artists who are as interesting in their compositions as in their songwriting, and this latest effort solidifies the sentiment.

Take the first track as an example. By most accounts, “Wheelchairs” would simply be a fine folk rumination on death and the passage of time, chock-full of some colorful images and simple guitar plucking. But upon closer examination, the composition goes much deeper. Buried in the quiet mix is a string of gorgeous, yearning piano lines that add an immeasurable quality to the song. And this isn’t a one-off occurrence, as Daniels continuously takes his simple songs in alarmingly unique directions. A spiritual follow-up to Sharp Teeth’s “Jesus and the Devil,” “Oh Heaven Isn’t Real” is a hand-clapping barn-stomper with some truly strange things going on in the background. “A Myoclonic Jerk” starts with just Daniels and his guitar, sputters to life with a Disney-fied woodwind explosion, and then transforms into a full-on rock song.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that some of Daniels’ most successful songwriting emerges when he dabbles in more rock-oriented fare. On Sharp Teeth, tracks such as “Minnows” and “American Pastime” successfully filled this role, the latter being an astonishing anomaly on an otherwise merely decent record, and one of the best dark American ballads penned this decade. This type of song falls somewhere in line with Jason Molina’s brand of lovely and complex classic rock, oftentimes with a real beauty lurking beneath the surface of mangy guitar lines. This idea reappears on Fear of Flying in songs such as “Martha Ann” and “Falling Down.” In the former, Daniels sorrowfully tries to connect with the titular “Martha Ann,” albeit in a rather upbeat fashion, while pleasant brass and string accoutrements pepper the background. “Falling Down” employs morbid and bloody car crash imagery to contrast with its sprightly organ drone, culminating in a sublime choral harmony and scattered guitar solo.

On Fear of Flying, everything adds up. Daniels is a songwriter who is bound to live in the shadows of the Will Oldhams of the world, at least initially. This record finds him beginning to develop into his own breed, primarily through his fascinating musical arrangements and sweetly grim lyrics. His knack in recording wizardry is clearly an asset here, and something that sets him leagues above many of his contemporaries. It’ll be interesting to see where Daniels continues from this point, but for now, Fear of Flying is a fine place to rest your weary head.

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