Audio Mixers: Mark Wolberg; Jeffrey Runnings.
Recording information: Mikltone (2014); Royal Court, Lincoln, NE (2014).
Three decades after co-founding For Against, a Nebraskan band that was emulating the sounds of British post-punk labels like Factory and 4AD long before many other American indie rock groups, Jeff Runnings released his debut solo effort, Primitives & Smalls, on dream pop label Saint Marie Records. The album continues very much in the same direction as For Against, from the layered, ethereal guitars to Runnings' surprisingly biting lyrics. The music seems pleasant (if a bit dark and gloomy) on first listen, existing as a haze of swirling guitars, atmospheric keyboard textures, and steadily knocking drum machine beats. But once you take heed of the lyrics (which aren't too obscured by echo), they end up being sharp and bitter, expressing fear, regret, and betrayal. He's constantly addressing an unspecified "you," often in an accusing tone. On "F for Emphasis," he inquires "What are you afraid of? What are you really made of?," while he ponders "What's it like to be locked inside of you?" on "Premium." Over the slightly more aggressive rhythm of "Outside Oslo," he doubts the protagonist's sincerity and tosses barbs such as "stop analyzing things you don't understand." There are a few glimmers of hope, however; the song also suggests that the future isn't as bleak as it may seem, and two brief instrumentals are a bit more light and breezy, particularly "Miss Magic Marker 1954," which seems downright cheerful placed in context with the rest of the album. Closing track "My Cheerleader" has a calming drum machine pulse and seems relaxing enough, but it's made all the more icy by the harsh, alienated lyrics. Unlike a lot of dream pop, Primitives & Smalls doesn't seem like the type of album that's intended to function as a polite soundtrack for idle daydreaming. It's vengeful and acerbic, and it cuts deep. But even as it seems hard to swallow at times, Runnings' mastery of the post-punk sounds he's been creating since the '80s makes the album a worthwhile listen. ~ Paul Simpson