For the Trees
The Wilderness Is Fuzzy With Details, Sharp On Its Debut Disc
The Wilderness that opened for Lungfish in June 2003 at Washington’s Black Cat bears scant resemblance to the band as heard on its self-titled debut on Jagjaguwar coming out in July. Hurried, shrill, and more textbook rock than Wilderness’ 10 rippling mood-puddles of anxious restraint, the Wilderness of two years back nodded the head but little more; the album concatenates out with every listen, opening up new spaces in which to get lost. Just what has produced this shift is a little difficult to understand, if only because if the band knows what it is, they’re not saying. In fact, it’s difficult to get much out of this local quartet at all.
“We probably played a few of the songs on the record at that show,” bassist Brian Gossman says. “But we were playing them really fast because we were really nervous. At least that’s what I remember.”
Gossman sits around the patio table of a Charles Village coffee shop with his band mates, each wonderfully affable, though with seemingly little interest, at least this early evening, in talking about the band, save guitarist Colin McCann. Almost every question meets an uncanny silence at first—silences that make long stretches of wind hitting the cassette recorder’s microphone sound like a technical malfunction during transcription—as if every query was more stupid, lame, or otherwise inconsequential than the previous. And then out of each pregnant pause McCann’s calm voice stitches together a string of collage sentences that make perfect conversational sense but read opaque on paper. When it’s all over, you know more about the band than you did before, but just try putting it into syntactical coherence and you feel like a blind man trying to catch tadpoles with chopsticks.
“We ended up running into each other at bizarre times and places,” McCann says, recounting the band’s history as if whittling something out of a piece of wood: It’s in there somewhere, you just have to get all the excess out of the way first. These four guys have known each other for almost 10 years, meeting in Florida—“between St. Augustine, Daytona, and Gainesville was sort of the home base,” McCann triangulates—and forming Wilderness once they all materialized in Baltimore. “California, again back down in Florida, and once again up in Baltimore,” McCann says. “And at times we’ve sort of traveled together off and on. But the idea of doing this band sort of formed early on when we first came to Baltimore. We all sort of came here around the same time, seven or eight years ago, with the main reason was the same—to be able to live and create, to be able to make music and art, and be able to do it easily.
Wilderness provokes the same sort of woozy familiarity as meeting the men who made it. Heavy yet pretty, droning yet melodic, noisy atonal yet rhythmically lush, Wilderness is a punch of contradictions that ultimately fail to address the oddly entrancing pull of the sounds. Drummer Will Goode hammers out hyperventilating bass beats with feathery percussive runs floating above them. McCann’s guitar figures sound like Felt’s Lawrence Hayward bleeding into My Blood Valentine-thick crumbling echoes, set off nicely by Gossman’s meandering bass lines that lurk in the back of the meter before rushing to the fore. And though it’s far too easy to think all 10 songs kinda sound the same, on the tracks where Wilderness is working its most nefarious alchemy—“End of Freedom,” “Fly Farther to See,” “Your Hands”—it reverberates with hypnotic discombobulation.
Adding to this murky, electric fog is vocalist James Johnson’s voice and Möbius-strip lyrics. Johnson has a full-throated snap, and rolls over and through his inscrutable lyrics. Goode’s tribal beat percolates under McCann and Gossman’s furtive lines in “End of Freedom,” tracing bulbous forms against which Johnson chants, “the hand, the fist,” like a pained man contemplating something he really, really doesn’t want to be considering, and then the entire song blossoms into a percussive sparkler over which Johnson chews, “the hand over the fist, the end to all this.”
It’s a spookily charged mood that becomes beautifully sinister in “Fly Farther to See,” a calmly paced ribbon of rising and falling anthem lines and drum rolls suspending Johnson’s abstract lyrics “commerce your comment, comment your comment, standing as landing, living as giving”—like Damien Hirst suspending well-sliced animals in artistic colloid. It’s undoubtedly glib and just this side of pretentious and so arresting you keep coming back to it.
And if this is the Wilderness today, then wow. “There’s a body of music that’s probably dead and gone that existed,” McCann says. “A big part of our history is that we used to practice in ACR recording studio in Pigtown, and it had a lot to do with formulating a lot of what we were doing. There was this huge expansive room, and we played really loud in there.”
About a year ago when the band decided to record something to shop around, it traveled to Northern Virginia and crammed itself into a small studio. “For me, playing in smaller rooms, it gives it more intimacy and immediacy,” McCann says. “Maybe the songs launched from that, being in a really close proximity to each other, and our personalities and our energies fed the music. It happened more that way than standing 15 feet apart and letting the drum kit reverberate over the walls. It sounded great and it was great fun, but we turned down a little bit and just found a little bit more . . . ”
“Subtleties,” Goode offers, completing the thought.
Whatever the case, Wilderness is a very promising recorded start for a band that didn’t want to venture out of the studio much until its fourth year of existence. “It’s strange that we’re doing this now,” McCann admits. “We’ve played music all along in different shapes and forms. And now here we are sort of slowly but surely getting married off and jobs and buying a house or whatever, and now it’s time to really get serious about the music. We’re touring for 15 days in July, and it’s the first time we’ve really done that. We have no idea if we’re even going to like it much. But we’re going to find out.”