Personnel: Zac Little (vocals, guitar, bajo sexto, bouzouki, domra, dulcimer, mandolin, sitar, ukulele, baritone ukulele, accordion, piano, synthesizer, 8-string bass, percussion); Steve Ciolek (vocals, guitar); Jon Meador (vocals, piano, synthesizer); Maryn Jones (vocals); Mike Mogis (guitar, pedal steel guitar, hammer dulcimer, keyboards, synthesizer); Matthew O'Conke (drums, percussion).
Audio Mixer: Mike Mogis.
Recording information: ARC.
Given his ambition as a songwriter, it was only a question of time before Zac Little arrived at the album Such Things. That it comes less than a year after the unwieldy collision of Appalachian folk styles and indie pop that was Dark Arc is remarkable. Little and company (vocalist/bassist Maryn Jones; producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis; pianist/vocalist Jon Meador; vocalist/guitarist Steve Ciolek) still employ plenty of "folk" instruments -- ukuleles, bouzouki, bajo sexto, accordion -- but they're more selectively used to color in standard rock instrumentation, which includes for the first time a real drummer in Matthew O'Conke. Little, always big on concepts, is obsessed with physics and spirituality on Such Things; he's ecstatic in his explorations and observations yet more economical with his lyrics -- a big plus. The tight songwriting is drenched in grooves, pop hooks, clever bridges, and transcendent vocal choruses. The production is busy as hell, but still has plenty of air. First single "Sleeper Hold" has Jones taking the opening verse. A midtempo guitar and snare stomp offset the outsized backing chorus, and slippery lead fills underscore melodic details before creating an alternate one. The dreamy "Estuary" is prefaced by lithe, languid electric guitars before downstroke acoustics take over. The harmonies between Little and Jones float breezily above keys, and shuffling tom and bass drums that add musical lightness to a poignant lyric. "Rare Form" is introduced by stacks of electric 12-strings, a snappy reverbed snare and cymbal. Its melody contains a Beatlessque hook and a faux doo wop chorus to boot. A low-end monotonous guitar pulse and simple snare vamp set the frame for "Bad Ideas." It's pure Robert Smith and the Cure worship. But everything around it -- wafting synth, quirky layers of backing vocals, and an angular melody -- evokes Brian Eno's Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy). "River" is a straight-up infectious rocker, with a killer duet vocal. The refrain contains a borrowed line from a Protestant Christian hymnody that serves a different purpose: To bless the mystery of an interconnected universe. The rhythmic pulse in "Lazarus" bubbles along between the rhythms section's play on dub reggae and the indie pop swirl of the guitars and keys. A further contrast is in the evocation of a massive church choir with stretched harmonies that equal Polyphonic Spree's. Closer "Maya 31" is a phase-shifted, psychedelic anthem, complete with sitar sounds, harmoniums, throbbing bass, and clattering drums, punctuated by screaming lead fills, a backdrop of feedback and distortion, and falsetto singing. Such Things is a giant step for Saintseneca on every level. While it's wildly expansive in its production, the songwriting and arranging are intensely focused; every seeming excess has a properly ordered place in their sonic universe. Here, the simple and profound are pondered and joyously celebrated as equals. Saintseneca is no longer a folk band. Mourn if you want, but when a record is this good, who the hell cares? ~ Thom Jurek