he Ida/Low axis—their history of touring together, sharing players—is a mutual admiration society that makes sense only comparing the shimmery glimmers of their respective patinas; at the core these two bands have always struck me as elementally different. Flashpapr (who includes Ida member and Low-collaborator Ida Pearle, and includes performance by Low-protégé Jessica Bailiff) is a group that appears to have both bands tattooed lovingly across its chest. Fans of the even-tempered polite prettiness of Ida’s folk-rock will find a similarly smoky-sweetness here. But while Flashpapr carries strong traces of Low’s influence throughout (specifically, The Curtain Hits The Cast and Songs for a Dead Pilot)—“Leave the Place” is a hybrid of Low’s “Same” and “Laugh” in pacing, chord progression and melody, “Between Lightning” borrows the vamp from Low’s “coattails”—what Flashpapr (and Ida, for that matter) do not share are the disturbed schizophrenic opacity of the lyrics, the almost hysterical, quiet storm that lies always beneath the surface. But then Flashpapr are not Low, and clearly have their own lovely (if decidedly more harmless) yarns to spin.
The record’s nine songs hang together well, weaving a somber and carefully controlled set of arrangements for acoustic and electric guitars, viola, violin, contrabass, glockenspiel, electronics, bass clarinet, and a minimum of percussion. The music, tending toward the drone, leaning primarily on the strings and hollow-bodied guitars, is often gorgeous but over the course of the record leaves one feeling the effects of a contrived gravity, of too much balance, too much control. This might not be half the criticism if not for the nagging feeling that the musicians are both capable of, and were shooting for, something with more teeth, something riskier, and were simply unable to escape the mostly monochromatic storminess of the songs themselves. Notable, however are numerous exciting instrumental textures hidden within the arrangements of many of the tunes, tempered only by the pretty but unadventurous songwriting. The songs, uniformly romantic, warm and well-constructed, the pervasive honeyed vibrato in the string section (reinforcing a sentimentality that doesn’t often need reinforcing), the unremarkable passage of the lyrics, and the vocals (like Codeine’s Steve Immerwahr adopting Ida’s Daniel Littleton’s folky phrasing), all contribute to the pleasure of every song but the ultimate forgettable-ness of the record as a whole.
The lyrics are like bedroom-penned adolescent postcards to sunny days and sad friends, angry cities, poems penned in love with their own vulnerability. In the hands of a lyricist like Mark Kozelek (Red House Painters, Sun Kil Moon) or Bill Callahan (Smog) such little surface-surfing emotional feuilletons can have an incisive and unexpected judo quality about them. Here the bathetic (“I waited all winter with you / Crumpled in the bed in the corners of your white room” or “You are the most beautiful thing I keep inside my heart”) trumps the poetic (“In the aftermath of things that fold in half / Repeatedly perforate”) three-to-one. Flashpapr are a band with the potential certainly to surpass similarly sensed indie-pop Sentimentalists via more adventurous musical settings (and one expected more with His Name Is Alive’s Warren Defever at the production helm) but whether or not his (and the band’s) ‘voice’ comes off as authentic, earnest, and beautiful (‘yes’ to all of the above) is not at issue. Sometimes it seems only in popular music does a believable sense of heartfelt intention seem to exempt it from criticism. I acknowledge and believe in the sincerity of this artist, and I am moved by it. But the fact that I also frequently feel over-manipulated by it is worth mentioning (particularly so because I listen with a romantic ear and a willingness to be swept away). The music is all too often ill-tailored, over-treating the words and weighing them down with an August maturity and autumn fitting they do not entirely warrant. So any criticism along these lines comes from actual admiration and a benevolent intent: a desire to hear the songs allow themselves to open up to where the instruments and arrangement seem to be leaning. Flashpapr is one of the lovelier recent groups to come out of the Michigan/Defever constellation and demonstrate the ability to prove that to a larger audience. With somewhat more effort taken to avoid the tendency to trivialize and sentimentalize its subjects, I could find more enthusiasm.
Reviewed by: William S. Fields
Reviewed on: 2005-06-01