The solo material from a member of a great band can wind up going in one of a couple different directions. For every time that a George Harrison proves himself on an All Things Must Pass, there will be a Keith Moon shouting on a Two Sides of the Moon.
Like Moon before him, S. Carey (aka Bon Iver contributor Sean Carey) is the percussionist of a well-established band who does relatively little drumming on his own solo work. That’s about where the similarities between the two stop. When stacked up against his contemporaries, S. Carey is more analogous to Lockett Pundt’s Lotus Plaza, who demonstrated on Spooky Action at a Distance that Deerhunter does not rest on Bradford Cox’s shoulders alone. Cox is to Pundt as Justin Vernon is to Carey. Remember that for your SAT.
On his 2010 debut, All We Grow, S. Carey demonstrated his role as an underrated yet crucial component of a group that’s typically associated with just one member. Vernon has pulled his weight on enough different projects to make it clear that he has an immense capacity for crafting beautiful soundscapes, but elements of Bon Iver’s overall sound can be heard throughout both Carey’s debut and Range of Light.
That’s at least in part because Vernon and the other Bon Iver bandmates make guest appearances throughout the nine-song LP, but it’s Carey’s approach to songwriting that’s at the forefront of the album. That style consists of taking a multitude of different sounds and piling up layer upon layer of instrumentation, creating airy, textured tracks that build, decay, and re-form throughout their runtimes.
Although Carey works in layers and enjoys stuffing as many instruments into one track as possible, the result rarely feels cluttered. When it starts to overwhelm, as it does towards the end of standout track “Crown the Pines”, the flutter of the strings and pianos still evokes a sense of urgency that’s controlled rather than messy.
The one element of Carey’s sound that he doesn’t seem to have complete control over is his voice. He sings with the soft emotionalism of artists like Ben Gibbard or Sufjan Stevens, his words shaky, not quite assured. On top of the intricate compositions, though, these vocals give Range of Light its humanity and emotion. Carey’s lyrics complement the mood of spacey tracks like “Fire-Scene”, over which he repeatedly sings the mesmerizing refrain, “All I want is honesty/ On and on.”
If Range of Light could benefit from anything, it would be an attempt to vary Carey’s vocal style and the tracks behind him. Despite all of the band’s dark, sad, piano-driven tunes, Death Cab for Cutie has released its fair share of upbeat songs, and Stevens has done the same. S. Carey mostly stagnates in mid-to-low tempos, aiming for atmosphere rather than traditional song structure. He’s absolutely comfortable working with that tone, but parts of songs like “Fleeting Light” hint at what the artist could achieve if he pushed himself for more variety.
While the overall tone of S. Carey’s sound doesn’t fluctuate much, his songs are still packed with enough subtleties and musical shifts. If you’re not paying attention, Range of Light is great music to have on in the background while doing work. If you’re listening with headphones, the album surprises with its complexity. Elements like the unexpected chord changes as “Neverending Fountain” builds or the first note of the electric guitar on “Creaking” are clearly and carefully calculated.
Range of Light, which was recorded at Vernon’s April Base Studios, is further proof that good things happen when you isolate yourself in Wisconsin. Although the album’s peers are primarily solo efforts that pale in comparison to a band’s own work, these nine songs should be viewed as something else entirely. Range of Light is its own entity, and a promising if a bit one-note follow-up album by the talented S. Carey.
Essential Tracks: “Crown the Pines”, “Fire-Scene”