Can a man who built his career around swirling guitars and the outer edges of rock write an alt-country record? Christopher Crisci has been plugging away in the world of atmospheric post rock with The Appleseed Cast since the decade started, and as of this year released one the more ethereal records in that bands catalogue. But all is not what it seems, and ambition can come in unexpected ways.
Unless youve been around the Crisci camp for a while, you might have missed his alter ego and musical collective Old Canes. Its a reclusive one that he hasnt been let out since 2004s Early Morning Hymns, and now five years later, the fury of acoustic guitar and late 90s alt country is back with Feral Harmonic. What could have been just another acoustic side project (but is essentially the same as his other stuff) has quickly turned into his version of The Basement Tapes-come-Old 97s thanks to its second installment.
The beauty of Old Canes is that you finally get to hear Crisci. His main work is more focused on layering and effects which leave his lyrics and vocals to be buried under the static. With Old Canes, Crisci gets a chance to sing it out and open up more. The opening set from Feral Harmonic throws us right into his unrelenting optimism, even if he is singing lines like we cant go back with an ode to a mental apocalypse on The Last Collapse. Its the chimes, horns, and furious strumming that turn the track from downer to something uplifting, and also give some spirit to album opener Little Bird Courage.
Those little nuances that Crisci is so good at are all over this record, in organic ways, be it with a xylophone, stringed section, or the harmonica on Next Flood. The accordions on Flower Faces are a great little highlight especially when the horns come in. I just wonder one thing, why is he still afraid to turn them up? Even with all that, many of the tracks do a good job of blending into one another, much like the debut record. Turn up the goods, and youve just upped the anti on the songs. Around Sweet though, something interesting happens.
For the larger part, much of Old Canes followed a certain pattern, giving us great songs to bob along to, but not much else. Starting at the half way point though, we get the hint that the usual strum-along-the-rock wasnt the whole picture that Crisci and company were going for after all.
In reality, they were flirting with something more basic, and instead of beating around it like they have been, they decided to go for it and write a few actual country songs. Sweet leads into it a little chaotically, but when the mandolins and banjos kick in for Under, the charm is undeniable. Black Hill Chapel is an instrumental that is about as close to bluegrass as these guys have come thus far. Its driving and adventurous as it chugs along into a quiet finish that leaves much to the imagination. The album closes on a quieter note with just Crisci on Southern Radio, and fades out to the sound of falling rain.
The best part about all the side projects out there is the possibility of the unexpected. The fact that Crisci decided to continue this musical collective is a bit out of the blue in itself, and when you get deep into their second record the trend continues. Its nice to hear his voice again, and in a way that shows his more down home personality. For a man used to stretching the musical boundaries, it must be nice to relax a little.