I keep waiting to receive a new release from the locally-based label Phratry Records that is subpar. The label — specializing in Indie/Post Punk/Punk-flavored sounds — is celebrating its sixth anniversary this month and its next release is its 22nd so far. The law of averages would suggest that, especially given the imprint’s increased output in the past year, at least one stinker would sneak by. But every time I click on a new MP3, slip in a new CD or drop the needle on the latest release’s vinyl version (Phratry’s offerings usually come in all three formats), I never fail to be impressed. And that 22nd release — the full-length debut from Cincinnati’s State Song, Dear Hearts & Gentle People — is definitely not the stink-bomb I’ve been half-expecting from Phratry. In fact, it may just be the label’s finest offering yet.
State Song — Scot Torres on vocals, guitars and piano, Matt Hemingway on bass and Justin Sheldon on drums — hit the local club scene just two years ago, making the power and engrossing nature of Dear Hearts & Gentle People all the more impressive. It is a stunning Indie Rock effort that is the perfect example of a true “album” — not just a cobbled together collection of songs, Dear Hearts is a cohesive piece of work best served whole. Once you begin listening, you won’t be able to stop anyway.
The press release compares it to a “40-minute symphonic composition,” which is spot-on. In this era of grabbing single files off the Internet and tossing them into your MP3 player with the rest of your songs — playing them in random, shuffled order — Dear Hearts is a refreshing return to a time when artists made albums as interconnected art, carefully constructed and plotted out so the tracklist flows together. Just as a filmmaker would never put together a movie with a collection of scenes that can be viewed randomly, State Song tells a sonic story with Dear Hearts & Gentle People. Not that you couldn’t find enjoyment from listening to a single track; it’s just best experienced collectively and in the order the band intended.
The trio’s sound is dreamlike and built around breathtaking dynamics, as they shift gears — time signatures, tones, emotions, vocal styles — intermittently. Tracks rise and fall, but it’s done more imaginatively and fluidly that the standard “soft/loud” dynamic often employed by Rock bands. Listening is akin to swimming in the ocean, paddling along peacefully one moment, swirling in choppy waters the next, then being lifted by a giant wave, pushed gradually to the top of it, maybe riding that apex for a second or two before crashing back down into the waters and waiting for the cycle to begin again. It’s unpredictable but never unnatural, dramatic but never melodramatic.
Dear Hearts begins with the melodic, propulsive “Blank Lake,” with its circular guitar movement, stop/start rhythms and surging vocals that build from a melancholic murmur to a guttural shout by song’s end. Like the instrumentation, Torres’ elastic voice adjusts in tone to fit the composition, but when he builds to a howl, it comes off as natural (similar to what Greg Dulli did with The Afghan Whigs), unlike, say, “Screamo” bands that toss in jarring tough-guy shouts that almost always seem completely out of place.
The band then segues into the twinkling piano intro to “Oceanaire,” a six-and-a-half-minute song with a hypnotic, swaying rhythm and soaring chorus. Later, the album’s current slinks down to a trickle with “Skeleton Key,” a frail, vulnerable ballad that is mostly just sad piano (with light, echoing guitar tracers in the background) and Torres’ melancholy murmur. The line, “Things that matter don’t matter anymore,” and the way Torres delivers it encapsulate the experience of depression better than any psychologist or scholar could ever explain it. The variable tempos move to high on “Death Valley, OH,” one of the more brash tracks on the album, while “Highway Machine” keeps the aggressive feel going with slashing guitars and blazing, frantic drums, while Torres' voice goes raw and vicious, sounding almost enraged.
Suppleness and fury combine on “Houses,” as Mellotron-like string sounds create a dirty dreamscape that pushes the undulating pulse to an explosive outburst and then back down again. “Dig” and “The Concierge” bring the album to a close with glimmering electric piano guiding the way. Both capture a sense of hope and redemption after all the sadness, anger and despair, but one of the brilliant things about State Song is that it's not just the lyrics that convey the variable moods, it’s the overall aura of the music. Even if Torres was singing in Latin, you’d totally understand each song's attitude. The band is masterful at translating emotions into sound.
I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve been reading about how the recent film Inception sucks viewers in so deeply they feel disoriented and haunted once they step outside of the theater. Dear Hearts & Gentle People’s dizzying atmospherics and fluctuating ambiance create a similar effect. Listening to the album from start to finish is an intense, absorbing experience, escapism at its finest. What more could you ask for from a piece of art?
Saturday, Phratry hosts a release party for Dear Hearts & Gentle People at the Southgate House. A CD version will be given away with each paid admission ($5; $8 for those 18-20). Vinyl fans can trade in the CD at the merch booth and get the vinyl version (with a coupon enabling you to download the whole album for free) for an extra $5.The vinyl and download versions feature bonus/alternate tracks.
Here’s the full lineup for Saturday's “full-house” release show.
Ballroom 9 p.m. Kasparov, 10 p.m. The Guitars, 11 p.m. Mallory, midnight State Song
Parlour 9 p.m. LifeLike, 10 p.m. Wild Talents, 11 p.m. The Frankl Project
Lounge 9:15 p.m. Rob Barnes of Slow Claw, 10 p.m. Billy Wallace & The Virginia Blues, 10:45 p.m. Umin, 11:30 p.m. Margaret Darling of The Seedy Seeds