Mutual Benefit Skip a Sinking Stone

[Mom + Pop; 2016]

Rating: 3.5/5

Styles: Sentience, Transcience, Prescience
Others: Trouble Books, Youth Lagoon, Foxes in Fiction

The one time I met Jordan Lee, I didn’t know what to expect. The band came through my small college town en route to Durham, NC with Noah Kline’s ambient project Cuddle Formation and stopped to play our rickety art space on a cool Wednesday in November. The three moved with a wide-eyed warmth and funny, charming sincerity as we talked immaterial theory, astrology, and the embarrassing world of amateur electronic sports. Despite most theory sitting pretty firmly on traditions of sharp cynicism and stiff social critique, the group brought a charming optimism that — even with probably a rich awareness of the sort of social injustice, income inequality, and political oppression that’ve left generations disillusioned — found joy in a sprawling, turbulent, precarious universe. Later that night, Lee hummed over hymns and jingles at our organ, rising up with a jokey candor and wide-eyed enthusiasm before accompanying the others in their sets. Alone yet together, sprawling out in the barren intimacy of a small room of friends, the night felt full and bold and powerful, a testament to the latent power of communal art in all its soft, sample-based splendor.

Skip a Sinking Stone, Lee’s followup to 2013’s Love’s Crushing Diamond, wears a lot of these thoughts on its soft, scraggly skin. The album’s backbone lies in metaphor; a skipping stone, sailing far across the soapy surface becomes a symbol for life and loss, a symbiotic acceptance of a larger fleeting impermanence. Less based around the seedy synths and banjo jangle of I Saw the Sea and The Cowboy’s Prayer, single “Not for Nothing” felt like the rolling pastoral force of the English countryside in reverence. Equal parts bucolic ballad and secular hymn, “Not for Nothing” was one of the wordiest moment for the project yet, built around sinewy, circular lines that end with a soft gulp, a quick breath, and the gentle affirmation: “It’s not for nothing.”

“Skipping Stones” ripples with piano chords, bubbling over in hushed cymbals and jangly rubatos, while “Lost Dreamers” weaves Kline’s requisite flute lines into a fanned deck of stings, plucked from the orchestra and assembled into new, unconventional ensembles built around stereo spread. “Nocturne” embraces field recordings and loose electroacoustics that wouldn’t sound out of place on Alessandroni’s concrète gem Biologie Marina, while “Fire Escape” wrings pitched loops and string harmonics through soft zither samples and into massive orchestral resound on “The Hereafter.”

Mutual Benefit has always found beauty in texture and ambience, and Skip a Sinking Stone is no exception. The album’s interludes and shorter tracks prove that Lee has an incredible vision for his sound beyond a lot of the perils that plague inoffensive folk today, but the release is not without fault. Caught in stale syllabic rhymes and melodic math that reach out toward accessibility, “Not for Nothing” falls flat, which is frustrating when so much of past releases have used these modes of wise naturalism to build wild, larger-than-life intrigue. Although this certainly marks a misstep, it leaves me with a larger understanding of the project’s limitations and a firmer awareness of how incredibly thin the songwriting space between wisdom, ambivalence and didacticism really is.

From every fractured fragment in field recording to each muted acoustic thrum beneath, it’s clear that Mutual Benefit has mastered its own forms of beauty and sonority in a spectrum all its own. But whether or not this adds up to anything larger than sonic indulgence is a tougher question, one that probably says more about listeners and their personal tastes than anything contained within the release. Like the flatness of a reflective pool, Skip a Sinking Stone stretches out in stunning beauty, giving listeners a gorgeous reflection of soaring, spectral synesthesia. But beyond a skip along the surface, the release is hesitant to move toward anything of a prescriptive statement; though, with lightness and transience so central to its theme, maybe that’s by design.

Links: Mutual Benefit - Mom + Pop

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