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Rob St. John - Weald

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Artist: Rob St. John

Album: Weald

Label: Song, By Toad

Review date: Aug. 3, 2012

Rob St. John’s debut album Weald seems to draw its strength from two main musical sources or tendencies. The first (and more dominant) is that mournful and sparse brand of minor-key acoustic balladry exemplified by Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room and currently practiced most prominently by Marissa Nadler. The second is that stream of rock that originates with The Velvet Underground and privileges repetitive drones and hypnotic rhythm over more conventional blues or pop structures. These two tendencies seem to find their meeting point in St. John’s folk-influenced sound, which keep the palette and expansive forms of traditional British balladry (repetitive structure, minimal variation in melody or accompaniment) while dispensing with its dramatic or narrative qualities.

Weald is a powerfully bleak album, yet its seeming austerity and uniform dourness is belied by a surprisingly wide range of textures and moods. While relying chiefly on his own guitar (often layered extensively), St. John deploys organ, musical saw, harmonium and violin, all drenched in reverb. While rarely straying from minor keys and displaying little variation in vocal style, he manages to convey a multitude of tonalities, from sweet melodicism (“Your Phantom Limb”) to epic mournfulness (“Sargasso Sea”), and a downright sinister and grimy darkness (“Domino,” which seems to borrow both Moe Tucker’s rhythm track and John Cale’s viola from the VU’s “Venus in Furs”). The range shown here is further accentuated by Weald’s highly effective sequencing: the album seems calculated to begin and end with its most welcoming and intimate moments, rising to peak intensity in its seven-minute long centerpieces “Stainforth Force” and “Domino.” The clear shape prevents formal or tonal monotony, and forces the listener to conceptualize the album as a whole rather than as a set of separable tracks.

While St. John’s musical sense is clearly manifest both in the parts and the whole here, what might be his music’s most personal factor — namely his voice — remains oddly forbidding and distant. At times uncannily reminiscent of John Cale, St. John growls and half-sings his way through most tracks, coming off as breathless and somewhat reluctant to express himself via language. This delivery makes it hard to follow his lyrics, and seems to keep the listener at arms’ length. While the intensity of the music may to some extent compensate for this, Weald’s overall effect seems to be diminished by the lack of a strong vocal dimension. On the other hand, one could argue that the distance displayed in St. John’s vocals keeps with the spacious, reverberating tone of the whole album, reinforcing the impression that this music comes from a frighteningly dark, lonely and distant place.

By Michael Cramer

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