rivulets [Chair Kickers Union, 2002]
Not too long ago, I made one of the worst errors a critic can make… I lost a CD that I was supposed to review. Somehow, in the midst of moving, of packing and boxing, my copy of "Rivulets" was misplaced. For all I know, my old landlord could have given it to the Goodwill. Now, that wouldn’t be a problem if it were some CD-R punk comp or lame trance mix, but this was a CD that I’d actually intended to review once the dust had settled.
They (or he, since Rivulets is essentially Nathan Amundson) were gracious enough to send another copy, and I slipped it into the CD player, wondering where I’d start. But once the CD started with Amundson’s soft strumming and breathy vocals, all such thoughts vanished, and I realized how much I’d missed these songs. It wasn’t something I’d ever noticed; things like that usually aren’t. But these songs felt so familiar, like a set of old, grainy family photographs you stumble across, not so much comforting as haunting.
On the surface, one is tempted to write Rivulets off as yet another Nick Drake devotee, with the hushed vocals and delicate guitar work. But as the disc goes on, its more gripping aspects come to the surface. This is no clearer than on "Tightrope", which may be the album’s masterpiece. Amundson’s vocals never sound softer and wearier, and his guitar takes on an almost funeral-like pace, driven only by soft percussion and a reverbed guitar. When he sings "Let’s walk down the road tonight", his voice just on the verge of giving out and overcome by the distant booms of the percussion, the sense of tragedy is almost overwhelming.
"Swans" strikes up another stark progression, with Amundson’s soft vocals sighing "Swans float above my lake" like the last words of a drowning man staring at the light above the surface. "Barreling Towards Nowhere Like There’s No Tomorrow" might imply a fairly rollicking song, but the song implies resignation more than anything else, a feeling of certain weight. It’s a feeling lent greater credence as Mimi Parker’s equally weary, yet lovely vocals join in.
Even when the album strikes up a lighter tone, it’s underscored by this solemn sound. Amundson’s strumming and singing on "Past Life" may come the closest to recalling Nick Drake. But this is not just some folksy, pastoral rehash, a la Mojave 3’s latest endeavors. "Past Life" may sound fairly jaunty compared to the rest of the album, but it too eventually succumbs, overwhelmed by a distant, droning organ that until the end, had just remained in the background. This same distant dread is felt throughout "How Who", where it slowly becomes more dominant as the song continues, held at bay only by Amundson’s falsetto.
Now, from what you’ve just read, you might get the impression that "Rivulets" is a fairly morose affair, but that’s not really true. Sure, these songs will never make someone’s party mix, but the delicate anxiety they contain give them depth and beauty, rather than a feeling of angst and despair. It’s an album that does take its time growing on you. The first few times I listened to it, these songs failed to make much of an impression. But little did I know that they were working away on me, which I didn’t realize until I had lost the CD. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I truly felt the impression they had left.
Jason Morehead, opuszine.com