BY JOHN SCHACHT
Colin Huebert’s first two LPs under the Siskiyou moniker were notable for their intimacy and austere instrumentation; they seemed almost as likely to fall apart as finish, and that was part of their charm.
There were discernible sonic upgrades from Siskiyou’s self-titled debut to sophomore release Keep Away the Dead (2011), but nothing to really suggest what was coming with Nervous’ ambitiously broad palette.
But then much had happened to Huebert in the interim, chief among them the debilitating inner-ear infection (and its side effects) that paint these songs in anxious, claustrophobic tones. Huebert was on a songwriting residency in the Yukon in the winter of 2012 when he began suffering severe bouts of anxiety and chronic ear-ringing. Those bouts continued throughout 2013 and defied conventional diagnosis or treatment; Huebert retreated to silence and meditation before finally returning to recording – though at much-reduced volumes.
With that as a backdrop, he began embracing new instrumental arrangement and recording techniques. Huebert tabbed producer/engineer Leon Taheny, who’s worked with Owen Pallett/Final Fantasy and Dusted, to work the controls, and the lush sonics those acts are known for have invaded Siskiyou-ville.
On Nervous’ 10 tracks, that registers as both good and bad news. The layered arrangements can be stunning while hinting at big payoffs that never arrive: “Deserter,” with a choir singing “all good things in life are free” over ominous organ, pulsing basslines and madly strummed guitar, leads to Colin Stetson’s skronky sax solo on the bridge and hushed choruses replete with ambient noises, but meanders between those sections; Huebert’s ghostly whisper highlights “Violent Motion Pictures” and provides contrast for the sinister guitar figure overlaid with yawing guitar cries. But all that angst devolves into a repetitive last two minutes that promise release without ever delivering.
Only on “Jesus In the 70s” does that all that anxiety result in any catharsis, but the track’s labored introduction reads more repetitive than ominous. By the time you reach the explosive chorus – which could soundtrack a Bosch painting of hell – the wait has been too long.
The most compelling tracks on Nervous turn out to be among the shortest and most direct. “Imbecile Thoughts,” a critique of pure idealism, is a fast-paced track where synths invade like Mongol hordes and then back off to reveal Huebert’s familiar strummed-guitar structures. On the more pop-oriented “Oval Window,” the insistent beats over circular guitar lines and keys create a whirling sensation that serves as fitting backdrop for Huebert to recount his symptoms: “The road is spinning around me/and I can’t feel the world beneath my feet.”
Nervous, then, turns out to be a mixed bag — there’s a promising expansion of Huebert’s instrumentation, and he certainly conjures a sense of foreboding throughout. But the songwriting doesn’t quite match the ambitions here, and that gives the LP a transitory feel – that, too, may be fitting, given Huebert’s long season.
DOWNLOAD: “Oval Window,” “Imbecile Thoughts,” “Back Accounts & Dollar Bills”