Reviewed by Jack Derricourt
A record of North American strangeness: that’s how I’d sell David Backshell’s new EP, Halfsleeper. It’s a somnambulist of a recording, weaving through the shadows of the internet before its new year’s awakening, in the first days of 2015.
The four tracks on Halfsleeper could easily be slapped around with the names of other performers: a little artist A here, a little of artist B’s strumming style there; that’s how we organize singer songwriters most typically isn’t it? It’s easier to judge someone like Backshell if we can dress him up as someone we know. After all, authors are just organizational devices, tools to find our way through the darkness of stories, songs, and riddles. But the real marvel of these new tracks by Backshell is that he finds himself in a new playground, with very few children joining him on the swing set.
The songs are long as a rule, stretching out past the borders of pop land, but never terrorizing the listener with classical folk structures (how many verses did you write about Henry Lee!?!) Tools at hand include: a guitar, a shaker, two vocals, a fiddle, and some odds and sods. Not much to work with, right? Well, as Backshell demonstrates in four delicately constructed outpourings, it’s all about the order in which you broadcast your several elements: layering is key, as he demonstrates in the opening track, “Iodine.”
The song begins with just a scrap of percussion and the regular vocal/guitar tag team; but then a transformation occurs, and blues slide licks latch on to the sound, bringing with them arching duo vocals, mouth harp, and rising fiddle parts. The form never forces a frame on the emotional path of the song — an underworld chant, forecasting supernatural touch and mundane contradictions — but rather, the form is swept up in the path of the story, the two seemingly interlocked in perfect harmony, telling the story with equal footing. It’s a whopper of an opening track.
Backshell often threatens cliché — as in “Rainmaker,” when the line “I spin like dust in the wind” alludes to one too many power ballads — but always comes away with something subtler: “rain like a wheel that’s turning me.” It’s this flirting with inherited language, but never falling victim to the full brunt of its force, that makes the lyrics on Halfsleeper stand out. Backshell refuses to let comfortable devices tell his stories for him, and while not entirely original, the content finds new ways to entertain.
This is a wonderful direction for Backshell: Halfsleeper is a rich and interesting collection of recordings that swell as the ears listen attentively. I am only left wishing there were more to engage with. I guess that’s the ultimate compliment to an enticing group of songs.
Rating: Strong Hoot (Good)
Top Tracks: “Iodine” , “Wetwired”