Tickley Feather's subterranean no-fi blues
First, a wisp of silence. Next, anticipatory tape-hiss. Then, hopscotching beats ricocheting over that itchy-scratchy substrata, with echoing synthesizer chords trailing almost metronomically in their wake. An artificially warbled voice materializes, suddenly, within this sonic frame: rippling, untranslatable, and unmistakably female, a spellbinding aria/aura rendered comically insipid by a vocal filter that makes the singer sound as though her woes are being piped through a bubble-filled water chamber or, like Donald Duck, belting out an operatic solo on the darkest day of his life.
This song--"Sure Relaxing," the second track from Hors d'Oeuvres (Paw Tracks), the second Tickley Feather album--is emblematic of the project's delicious contradictions: these basement-moldy, lo-fi fugues are stubbornly insular, deeply forlorn and downcast, gently and subtly pop, and thoroughly ridiculous. By partial contrast, Tickley Feather--Virginia-based house-flipper Annie Sachs in civilian life--comes across as a goof in a late November e-mail interview. Sachs writes from Wales; she's been spreading the Tickley gospel on a European tour for the last few weeks.
"We took a rough sea ride by ferry to get here today," she writes from Dublin. "This was actually the third ferry trip so far this tour. I barfed on the first one. The guitarist barfed on the one today.
"People in Dublin cuss more than anywhere I've ever been," she continues. "I had a cussing fight with a drunk in the crowd that night, and ended up putting a trash bag over his head. He thought it was funny, and it cooled him off a little. But generally, these folks seem looser and more natural than your typical American."
Her eponymous 2008 debut Tickley Feather (Paw Tracks) introduced Sachs as an heir apparent to Ariel Pink and Amps-era Kim Deal, a half-hour cave crawl through bleary moods, drum-click percussion, oscillated sonics, cerebellum-burrowing melodies, answering-machine production values, and adorably nonsensical chatter from Sachs' son Aiden. Its 200 rudimentary kvetches bleed together, mixtape-style; they're less songs proper than song fragments, puddles pooled after a brainstorm.
The disco drear of "Buttshot" boasts a synth hook that'd be the envy of any Euro-cheese pop producer. "I'm Magic" flouts in-the-round, organ-grinder psychobabble. Tape sound-collage piece "1978 fast/xylophone/leaking roof" wouldn't sound out of place on an avant-garde oddities compilation. The chorus to slanted, enchanted suite "Lookout What's Next"/"Convention" steals, to great effect, from the "your X called, it wants Y back" series of Phil Hartman-era Saturday Night Live sketches. On more than a few tracks, Sachs' vocals are so drastically overdubbed that she sounds like she's having a heated argument with herself.
"The first stuff, songs from my first release, I was just playing around privately," Sachs writes of Tickley Feather, which was recorded while the songwriter was living in Philadelphia. "They were short little lessons for myself on how to make songs. I didn't know anyone was ever going to hear them, really."
Recording in the Shenandoah woods of Virginia--the state where she grew up and now resides--Sachs approached Hors d'Oeuvres with different, somewhat grander intentions. "For this record, I aimed to make songs longer and easier on the ear, I guess," she writes. "Each song is kind of like a little thing to eat at a party before you have the real big dinner."
No less warm, weirdly stilted, and messy than its predecessor, Hors is more fully realized, a cache of actual songs--10 of them in a half-hour--not bits of songs. Like the debut, each number seems to slip by like quicksilver. On "Not a Drum," Sachs' voice is again multiplied, distended, and blurred, creating an effect that's as disorienting as it is come-hither: It's like being hypnotized by a haunted music box that has designs on your soul.
Instrumental "Buzzy" embodies its name, fizzing clipped, cascading scree over the sort of pulsating keyboard noodle you'd expect from a low-budget sci-fi soundtrack. "Trashy Boys," meanwhile, is Hors at its most pop--a ramshackle tune tricked out with radiant Sachs vocals, insouciant synth drones that simultaneously suggest inertia and lifted spirits, and winsome lyrical rabbit's feet such as, "You give me a locket/ I keep in my pocket all day long." "Muscles" packs mid-tempo synths that pump like underwater pistons and honk like drunk, novice horn players.
On closing instrumental workout "Tickley Plays Guitar," Sachs takes ax in hand, flailing endearingly at a distorted rock hook as the usual tools of her trade--boom-bap drums, yo-yo-ing keyboards, electronic filters and gadgets, a static-charged ambiance--eek out an agreeable context in the background. You suspect that the "meal" Sachs refers to regarding Hors is still to come, and might involve pickups, whammy bars, and cracked frets.
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