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Rusty Santos - The Heavens

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Artist: Rusty Santos

Album: The Heavens

Label: United Bamboo

Review date: Feb. 16, 2005

“Nation” could be the anthem for the flag-waving avant-folk milieu. The song starts as a slightly disingenuous evocation – a few guitar chords, the lyrics “use your imagination” sung ad infinitum – only to become otherworldly as the meaning of those words is stripped away, the timbre delicately echoed and manipulated with layers distortion. What’s left is something between a mantra and a practical joke, a kid with a guitar wearing the mask of a prophet whose vocabulary is limited to one-liners.

At other times on The Heavens, Rusty Santos wears other masks, from exuberant folkie to naïve romantic to bedroom experimentalist. This, his third record, feels like a series of sketches that, when put together, form an intriguing and at times captivating emotional landscape.

Though the production assistance of Animal Collective’s Dave Portner, is evident, Santos’s music is less abstract; its instrumental sparseness demands a more individual presence. Santos fulfills that demand with ease, and his songwriting shifts between earnestness and playfulness with aplomb. On “Villains,” sonorous singing floats above a syncopated guitar riff, landing only as the chorus begins with Santos uttering: “You can be strong if you’re ready to run…run if you’re ready / can’t convince us / I’m not an asshole / you’re really in danger.” This bit of melodrama is then broken by the return of the same guitar riff, with Santos rolling his tongue and chanting nonsensically until the song ends. The next song begins, “Tell your sister she hasn’t got a clue / For my school colors I’ll pick black and blue.”

Portner and Santos, who helped record and produce Animal Collective’s Sung Tongs, take a minimalist but attentive approach to The Heavens. With little besides guitar, vocals and the occasional sparse drumbeat, each element of the acoustic guitar is treated like an instrument. Resonance and sympathetic frequencies are extracted and positioned to create a sense of space that is distinct, but slightly disorienting; focused, but never static or overbearing. Evanescent percussive sounds shadow the vocals and guitar with gracious subtlety, at times seeming preternatural.

The Heavens further reveals itself with each listen, anchored by songwriting that swings glibly from the comic to the prophetic. After listening to the verse of “Careful Aim” several times – “Life / is not the same as death / they’re not the same / and love / is not the same as sex / It’s not the same” – the two appear as one in the same.

By Alexander Provan

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