Long before Josh Tillman began playing drums for Fleet Foxes in 2008, he was penning intimately stark portraits of his own as a well-enmeshed member of the Seattle folk scene. His six previous records for Keep, Yer Bird, Fargo, and Western Vinyl have cultivated a small but devoted following, and while the Foxes gig couldn’t have hurt his name recognition, Tillman still operates somewhat on the periphery of the industry, embedding his work with a literary touch that is simply less accessible than the more populist folk sound and lyrics of his peers. Closer to Mark Kozelek or Will Oldham than Regina Spektor or Feist, Tillman’s vivid approach is bare without being overwrought, requiring more attention than most listeners are willing to give. But for those that relent, Tillman can be as elating as author and kindred spirit Cormac McCarthy, the patient finesse of his voice and acoustic compositions providing a sublime foundation for his enriched, poignant stories.
Recorded over just three days in Chicago with Steve Albini and Bob Weston, Singing Ax carries on Tillman’s preference for minimalism, featuring only the man, his guitar, and the occasional mellotron and programmed drum flourish. This simplicity was undoubtedly the right approach, as a backing band would’ve only gotten in the way, distracting listeners from the weight of Tillman’s lyrics or the quaint and haunted beauty of his guitar playing. In this way, Singing Ax redefines what’s too easily considered necessary, a subconscious reminder that each musical component should be able to prove its worth. So when the manipulated beat and quivering keys appear for mere seconds at the peak of opener “Three Sisters,” their presence is gripping, whereas buried in the constant rattle of a full band, they’d be an afterthought. This experience resurfaces at the close of the album as a cacophony of percussion surges and swirls around the final ghostly refrains of “Seat at the Table.” Like the credits rolling at the end of some profound drama, the song ends but weighs heavy on your mind or, perhaps better put, Singing Ax isn’t an album you turn off, ready to flash an easy smile at those around you. It lingers, daring us to sit with this disquieting feeling long after its final chords pass away.
Singing Ax is also a record that has the power to restore one’s faith in lyrics as a mode of serious poetic expression. Indeed, should playing music ever run its course, Tillman should probably consider a career as a novelist, because he’s got a gift with words, both as selector and sequencer. Hardly a concept album, Singing Ax is nonetheless a cohesive set of stories racked with religious, rural and somewhat mythological imagery. On songs like “Diamondback,” it’s a fusion of them all as he sings, “Who will love a loveless thing / Betrayed by God / Exiled by beasts” with brief but encompassing effect. This, just a few refrains after he delivered the equally eloquent line, “You can own an acre / But not what it grows,” depicting the unspoken powerlessness of man in a way that would make Bob Dylan proud.
Again, Tillman deals in a sort-of thinking man’s folk, but in a way that is neither intellectually draining nor smug. These songs are conscious portraits of human experience and exchange, accessible to anyone who will slow down long enough to listen with deliberate intent. Often, they move with the clip of a slowly churning ambient release, and I’m sure Tillman is well-aware of the restlessness this pace causes for some listeners. But he’s even more aware of those who will stay, who will travel with him through settings both caustic and pristine, the quiet vibrancy of his voice and picked guitar calmly blending to deliver a work of somber beauty.