BY JOHN SCHACHT
Emil Amos began musical life as an outlier to the outlier-friendly ‘90s, and hasn’t yet joined the herd. Operating under the Holy Sons moniker for his solo material, Amos writes, performs and self-records druggy dirges – sometimes with Middle Eastern flourishes, occasionally in a jazzy vein — over which his sleepy vocals deliver brutally honest self-analyses.
Holy Sons’ narratives may plumb the darker angels of human frailty, obsolescence, paranoia, addiction and self-loathing, but there’s an undercurrent of humor – and just plain stubborn endurance — that lightens the mood just enough to keep you from wrapping the noose around your neck. (“Do you have a complication that I don’t need?” Amos deadpans on “I’m Healed” from 2006’s Decline of the West.)
Amos really does embrace the mantra “four-track therapy,” and his songs often feel they first took shape on a psychologist’s couch. But over the years Holy Sons has evolved from its rudimentary lo-fi roots into a more sophisticated musical outlet, much as like-minded artists Bill Callahan, Will Oldham or Raymond Raposa have done. (Amos has also worked with Om and Jandek and was a founding member of Grails and Lilacs & Champagne.)
The Fact Facer (Thrill Jockey) doesn’t alter the thematic equation; Amos still sees himself as a head case from the opener “Doomed Myself” on. The evidence resides in any random couplet picked from the new record: “Life could be a dream,” Amos sings on the song of the same name as guitar layers pile up and the tempo quickens, “so you can lie back and shuck, or wake up and scream, or rattle chains like me and limbo in between.”
Amos’ state of emotional limbo still defines the music; The Fact Facer’s songs, like most of their older cousins, linger comfortably in relaxed tempos and subtle arrangements. Where the new LP does differ from 2012’s Survivalist Tales! , for instance, is in the exaggerated use of effects —televangelists, insects and film stars drift like wandering ghosts through the LP. Those tape loops, along with rich layers of synth, feedback and incidental noise, coat everything in a gauzy, half-dreamt texture. The slick guitar lick at the center of “Transparent Powers” drifts in and out of focus like a narcotic buzz. Dreamy keys float over the deliberate beats and processed vocals on “Line Me Back Up” as the “years wash by.” The back end of “Selfish Thoughts,” whose Middle Eastern vibe recalls Amos’ instrumental rock Grails project, buries a droning guitar raga in a dust-storm of feedback.
The blended textures impress, but technique takes you only so far. Amos also delivers memorable melodies that provide solid foundation for the atmospherics to do their thing. The gorgeous piano-shaded number “All Too Free” recalls Callahan at his most melodic, “No Self Respect” ignites into an Oldham-like revival track from the Palace days, and the plodding giant-tempo of “Doomed Myself” has choruses beautiful enough to survive an onslaught of background noise worthy of Califone.
The bare-bones title track, which closes the LP, features Amos showing off his acoustic blues chops with some fine fret-work. The track harks back to Holy Sons early days, but now it’s the outlier – The Fact Facer is a nuanced, multi-leveled listen that stands with the best things Amos – and anyone covering similarly adventurous terrain — has done.
DOWNLOAD: “Doomed Myself,” “All Too Free,” “Life Could Be a Dream”