Karl Culley – Last
Format: Digital only
Time: About 74 minutes
Tracks: 1) Perfection Only Exists In The Mind 2) Nastassya 3) In A Sky Of Infinite Suns 4) Listen 5) Mistakes 6) The Föhn Wind 7) Wedding And Funeral Shoes 8) Amethyst 9) Devil In A Damn Fine Suit 10) Being Alive 11) 1, 2, 3 12) Delivered (My Maja) 13) Windows 14) Ghost Made Blood 15) Reality Is Like The Sun 16) How It Works 17) The Siege Of Antioch 18) Dale 19) St. Crispin’s Day 20) Embers 21) Looking Back Blues
Some readers may remember my review of Karl Culley’s 2015 album, Stripling. His new album Last (to be released on September 1, 2018) was recorded over the last three years in Culley’s home of Krakow, Poland. The good news is we have new music from Culley, and he is also now a father of a young daughter. The sad news is the turmoil in his life, a divorce, and due to various responsibilities he has decided this will be his “last” album of music.
The engineers for this album are Jaroslaw Zawadzki in Poland and Daniel Webster in England (the two tracks: Nastassya and Listen, with Webster playing all instruments, except for Culley on acoustic guitar). At first, I listened to this album at home, in my little studio, then I took it on a long road trip to and from the Adirondacks (in upper New York State), to get to know it better. It’s an excellent road trip album, by the way.
The subjects of this collection are both within the mind (things that can be imagined) and actual experiences (both joyous and painful). This album is pretty dense, and with 21 tracks, I found that I needed about two sittings to get through it, which is NOT at all a negative comment. Just the opposite, since the album is of a quality that demands a listener’s rapt attention. In my opinion, this is not a collection of background music. Coincidentally, at the mid-point of the album, is the metronomic instrumental 1, 2, 3, which serves as a bit of an intermission, before part two.
Culley deftly conveys the emotion of a given moment or the subject with only his acoustic guitar (ignoring the lyrics, for the moment), since the rhythms, strumming and picking reveal the intent of the song, like gently descending notes (like Embers falling in a fire) or a galloping heart beat (Being Alive) or the tender waltz (rocking cradle) beat and comfort and contentment in Delivered (My Maja). Maja also plays tricks with time, at first it’s the marvelous intimacy of having a newborn child on one’s chest, and then four lines later to “…unfurl to your consorts…” In a sense, preparing to release her to the world in her later years (children DO grow up quickly, as I can attest).
Without knowing (or wanting to know) the details of Culley’s private struggles over the last three years, it’s clear from this album that there are many complexities to love, relationships, and resentment. Have a listen to the darkness in Nastassya (which I am told is based on Dostoyevski’s The Idiot) or the anger and harsh reality in How It Works.
One of my clear favorites on this album is In A Sky Of Infinite Suns, with its snappy taut rhythm–I found that I kept hitting replay on my car CD player to keep the energy going. Another of the near-breathless pieces is Being Alive, with its galloping rhythm of angst “…just being alive hurt so much…looking into the mouth of a liar…like walking through the fire hurt so much…” (also sounding like a fast-beating heart with the lyric “…swells in the blood…”). By contrast there are contemplative meditations like Listen, and Reality Is Like The Sun that are both reflective and perhaps self-analytical (just like the more energetic and playful Mistakes). I wonder if KC finds that his own music can function as a form a therapy? I certainly find music to be quite therapeutic, whether energetic or comforting.
There are moments of keen observations of the bizarre, but absolutely true aspects of life, like in Wedding And Funeral Shoes, as well as moments of levity, Devil In A Damned Fine Suite. Overall, Last is a fine balance of musicianship and storytelling in a similar vein to the earlier acoustic works of Gordon Lightfoot, and if one listens carefully, one might pick-up the descending tones reminiscent of the opening to Nick Drake’s Chime Of The City Clock in The Siege Of Antioch (a pretty heavy observation on the First Crusade). The last song on the album, Looking Back Blues, is a reflection of sadness for a time past, but (perhaps) an appreciation that the passage of time can yield after the breakup of a relationship…there will always be a connection, especially when a child is involved.
I am sorry that Karl Culley is leaving the music scene, alas the realities and responsibilities of life somehow do take over, but I hope KC finds other rewarding endeavors for his talent and creative spark, and hope he enjoys watching his daughter grow up.
Take care and best wishes, Karl.
This is a solicited review.
Should – The Great Pretend
Words On Music – WM38 CD Time: 43:15 (To be released on March 25, 2014)
More on Should and the album: http://www.words-on-music.com/WM38.html
Tracks: 1) Don’t Send Me Your Regrets 2) Loveless Devotion 3) Mistakes Are Mine 4) In Monotone 5) Down A Notch 6) Everybody Knows 7) Dalliance 8) A Lonely Place 9) Amends 10) Gold Stars 11) Don’t Get To Know Me
I was around for the punk and post-punk eras (Wire’s Pink Flag and Chairs Missing being pretty prominent in my studio days along with early Talking Heads albums and many other bands and genres). I have to admit that I missed a great deal of the original Shoegaze bands largely due to austerity and having a young family, so other pleasant distractions reigned from the late 1980s into the late 1990s (although bands like Cocteau Twins, The Sundays and Scritti Politti found their way to my vintage stereo). I missed the early days of the band Should, but I remember their second album Feed Like Fishes from the edges, and their 2011 album Like A Fire Without Sound is a recent favorite (by then I was well out of my musical seclusion).
Relationships are often complex entanglements, whether one is embarrassed to admit being in one, longing to be in one (longing to be OUT of one, perhaps?), or preferring to be just plain left alone (whether misanthropic or morbidly shy). The songs on The Great Pretend have pleasantly simple and catchy foundations of melody, chords with lyrics of young and even mature longing or angst. The songs build gradually and the instruments and voices weave into dulcet yet deceptively intricate compositions. The album never sounds heavy, and if anything it’s ironically upbeat at the moments when lyrically it’s just the opposite (at times avoiding directness, shrouding emotions, much like the album’s stylized cover). A side note: The Great Pretend is also the title of the last track on Like A Fire Without Sound.
Don’t Send Me Your Regrets opens the album and is a sort of foreword, largely a verse without a chorus. To me, it’s more of a song fragment that sets a mood, much like some of F. M. Cornog’s East River Pipe songs like Wholesale Lies from The Gasoline Age. The one cover on the album (and it’s a great one) is Loveless Devotion by Over The Atlantic’s Nik Brinkman and Bevan Smith (from their album Dimensions) and it’s a softer interpretation with staggered harmonies from Marc Ostermeier and Tanya Maus accompanied by crisp guitar and bass. The rougher edges of the original version appear towards the end of the song.
What’s a bit different on this album compared to Should’s last is that rhythms seem more energetic (dare I say danceable?) as in Mistakes Are Mine, Everybody Knows (with drum machine and statement-response lyrics) and Dalliance, yet there are moments (like In Monotone) that are more contemplative with gentle keyboards, light electric guitar and drums; it’s a Shoegaze One Note Samba.
Down A Notch is an excellent first single for the album, another example of an upbeat song with paradoxical lyrics. A Lonely Place is a duet reminiscent of some of Brian Wilson’s songs from the romantic yet melancholic Pet Sounds era, it reminds me of Caroline No. Amends explores a darker mood and sound. Gold Stars is like a gentle sonic waterfall, similar to Turned Tables from Like A Fire Without Sound.
The album closes with the curiously upbeat yet shy introspection of Don’t Get To Know Me, and there it is again, the complexities of relationships and emotions—songs that often express feelings better when one is at a loss for words.