Band of the Day

2012.04.08

Carter Tanton

Sprawling yet focused experimental pop with striking songwriting front and center
In back beat time I understand the joker and the ace and how to play my hand.
lyrics from Murderous Joy

Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, Carter Tanton found his first solo foray into music through his 2005 debut album Birds & Rain before moving to Boston and helping start the indie-rock band Tulsa. The group released the EP I Was Submerged in 2007 and then spent two years creating new material for a follow-up EP. However, struggles with the label and certain legal troubles caused the album to be stalled and the group ended up disbanding. Tanton left to play guitar in support of Marissa Nadler’s band, and even contributed to her self-titled album she later released. Through his work with Nadler, Tanton was inspired to record his solo effort Freeclouds which was recorded and released via Western Vinyl in 2011. Carter is also currently a member of the band Lower Dens.

Like many people, Carter Tanton has had to ask himself at least once, "Where do I go from here?" We know this because he initially emerged as the frontman of a band called Tulsa (that, to make matters more confusing, was from Boston) that, after releasing a promising debut, found itself and its sophomore album stuck in legal limbo. And like many individuals faced with bad situations, Tanton cut his losses and moved on. He relocated to Baltimore, where he joined the celebrated singer-songwriter Marissa Nadler's backing band and became a member of Jana Hunter's band Lower Dens. In his spare time, he gave life to Freeclouds, his largely home-recorded second solo album and one, with its countless answers to the question "How can one make a simple song sound interesting?" that rarely sounds like it was crafted outside of a studio. Across its ten tracks, Tanton presents a collection of dense, gorgeously textured pop songs unified as much by their production as by the voice that leads from one idea to the next, and his writing style constantly shifts to match. From the descending figure that opens the song, "Murderous Joy" sounds remarkably expansive, with hints of programmed drums accompanying Tanton's rich tenor, which does much of the heavy lifting throughout. In its final lines, he reveals the song as an homage to David Bowie's "Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud," the B-side to his early single "Space Oddity," before piling on a wide range of sounds over the course of a slow fade as the song's narrative becomes ambiguous and hazy, much like a photograph that looks better because it didn't quite develop correctly. It then transitions into "Fake Pretend," where Nadler's voice cameos over a dense, synth-heavy composition that breaks down for a moment for a verse performed entirely through a vocoder, before returning to its chorus - a move that's made all the more effective by the glistening leads that emerge in the song's final seconds. Though he's undeniably a maximalist, Tanton remains understated, patient, and unwilling to beat an idea over his listener's head (or repeat it to the point of frustration), keeping a feeling somewhere between the autumnal and the cosmic hanging over many of these songs. Tanton's all-encompassing take on Americana readily proves itself eager to go everywhere at once, making clear the joy he takes in restless experimentation. You can hear it in the way his cover of Sparklehorse's "Saturday" emerges as a lush piano ballad that barely contains any piano and downplays its massive chorus, refusing an easy out. Or in the downtempo drum loops that back "In Knots," especially when compared to the chaos that works in tandem with the aching melody that grounds "Land Lines" as everything around it soars skyward. Like Kurt Vile and Cass McCombs, two iconoclasts who inspired him to make singer-songwriter records that both work within a tradition while existing in different universes entirely, Tanton's work displays a confident understanding of what's been done and how to make it uniquely his. Even if you hadn't heard his name before now, Freeclouds makes an extremely compelling case for keeping the name Carter Tanton fresh in your mind.