Where you gonna go to now
Sandy - Papercuts
John Brown - Papercuts
Nostalgia's a tricky bitch, a loose, yet stingy whore -- as likely to hand out Vaseline lenses on behalf of reactionary ideologues as pass a joint in the park with the neo-hippie crowd. But unlikely to serve either honestly. Jason Quever, the more-or-less sole practitioner behind Papercuts, could be accused of working in the same unreliable echo chamber as many of the new nostalgic folkies. As a working musician, Quever's semi-peripatetic, but comes closest to calling San Francisco home, and his label, Gnomonsong, belongs to Devendra Banhart and Andy Cabic. Quever has played in Vetiver and Cabic returns the favor by lending vocal harmonies to a couple tracks on Papercuts' latest album, Can't Go Back (buy from Gnomonsong). One of these is a song called "Outside Looking In," and it's where (if his music, more indebted to Phil Spector than Pentangle, doesn't already communicate it clearly) Quever formally breaks with his immediate peers:
I'm always on the outside looking in
And I don't understand that poetry you read
What does it mean that you have
An existential dilemma.
If as a statement of intent the new album's title isn't musico-historically accurate (I hear everything from The Mamas and the Papas to the Byrds to the Everly Brothers, but not a lot that I'd identify as uniquely 21C), it breaks from the past in other crucial ways. Papercuts' last record, Mockingbird, had a cabin-fevered closeness, even a sickbed-sodden inertia. What pretty songs there were -- "A Fairy Tale," "Tulips," "December Morning" -- were lonely, muted, diaristic. (It should come as no surprise to anyone that Quever's pals with Owen Ashworth.) Can't Go Back isn't an open book, but it offers a greater sense of optimism, interactivity and that important byproduct of getting outside your own skull -- empathy. Most of the song's opaque narratives offer shaky assistance to souls who sound even more troubled than Quever. In the lovely sun-areoled "Sandy," he sings, Sandy baby now it's time for you to rise and see the world outside/It ain't so bad just don't try to be something you're not. Strings in "John Brown" -- one of the best songs of this young year -- shiver mournfully. However, the lead guitar stabs sharp and sure, and if Quever's intonations start foggy, four minutes in he's bleating sweet certainty to a crisp backbeat in support of this John Brown who sees things and hears voices (and who may or may not be the famed abolitionist and infamous half-deck card player). For a moment, the invisible and disenfranchised are bright hued and clarion voiced.
Quever still does all of the songwriting and most of the singing, playing and engineering (impressive, considering the textual density of the project). This time, though, he sounds like he's sharing the recording studio with other people and that occasionally he escapes the building and strolls the streets, takes the air. And that's what I hear this record soundtracking: walks on faded blocks of peeling, post-war hope -- drooping flower shops, seedy, time-warped junk outlets, diners with neon signs that lost some of their letters as long ago as the 80s. Former downtowns of cities whose centers have shifted. (If you live in an American city, you know these streets.) But blocks that still shuffle with tired feet and are papered with faces that tell stories, sometimes familiar, sometimes surprising. Nostalgic? Yes. But focused, realistic. Most of all, generous.