Overseas collects the restless, subtly shifting energies of four individuals, two of them the Kadane brothers from Bedhead and the New Year, one Seattle’s rough-housing spiritualist David Bazan, the other Will Johnson, the ghostly Texan murmurer of Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel.
The four are connected by criss-crossing ties of touring and playing together over the years, but the main node of intersection seems to run through the Undertow Orchestra, a collaboration between Bazan, Johnson, Vic Chesnutt and Mark Eitzel of American Music Club. It was shortly after Chesnutt’s death in 2009 that Overseas first convened. All four of the new band’s members had been affected, in one way or another, by the songwriter’s life, work and passing, all four looked to the Orchestra’s model of shared songwriting and equal contribution as a way to work together.
The album took about three years to finish, working from sketches and jams into the fully-realized songs. Bubba Kadane played mostly guitar, his brother Matt a variety of instruments – guitar piano, drums – Johnston played drums and guitar, and David Bazan picked up the bass. Even so, it has a casual, lived-in grace, a happily accidental quality of four rather different sensibilities fitting together without losing their own shapes.
Consider, for instance, the opening song, “Ghost to Be” which arises out of a single minimal guitar lick loosely tethered to snare and kick drum. The two elements at first seem to be only loosely related, yet soon, as another, more insistent guitar comes in, a framework emerges, a time signature, a key, a theme. A fraction later, Will Johnson enters, his voice high and weathered, spectral, doubled in close, eerie harmonies. The song begins to sound a bit like South San Gabriel, like a country song gone ghostly and translucent at the edges, but then it takes a turn towards the New Year’s luminous guitar abstractions. It sounds like both of them and neither of them.
Bazan dominates his songs more than Johnson does, his wry, ruminating verses easily commanding attention over Silkworm-ish crunch (“Old Love”) or the 6/8 pitch and roll of country-ish “Come with the Frame.” Bazan’s lyrics are concerned mostly with mid-life family relations, wives, kids, the overlap of work and art and domesticity, all routine subjects. This makes his stabs at transcendence all the more striking, as when he follows a litany of the mundane with the verse, ”Bank on the future, box up the past, bury the questions you don’t want to ask, always make sure the subject remains in the frame.”
Bazan is, perhaps, more emphatic and linear of a songwriter than Johnson, but there’s something beautiful about the way that Johnson slips into the texture of the songs. In the final song, “All Your Own,” his voice melts into a luminous interplay of two guitars, one acoustic, one electric, one close strummed, the other arcing out in melody. It’s a gorgeous, ego-less close to a wonderful album, in which everyone comes together without losing what is special about each.
DOWNLOAD: “Ghost to Be” “Come with the Frame”