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Lost Chords & Serenades Divine #13 by Stephen McClurg

Palm: Rock Island (2018)

A something in a summer’s noon –
A depth – an Azure – a perfume –

~Emily Dickinson

Sing, cuccu, nu. Sing, cuccu.
Sing, cuccu. Sing, cuccu, nu.

~Anon., “Summer Is I-cumin In”

Palm’s Rock Island conjures an aura of summer, from the sharpest July light to the dimming of vacation’s last rays. The music is vibrant, partially because of the vocalists using higher registers and partially due to bright guitar tones. Despite being described as experimental or post-rock, there is a commitment on Rock Island to vocal melody, reminiscent of Lush’s floating, silvery vocals, and sometimes even Surf’s Up-era Beach Boys.

Palm Rock Island

At odds with this melodic catchiness is Palm’s approach to rhythm. A recurring compositional element on the record is a battery of stuttering rhythms and syncopations, several so severe they sound like skips or loops. Because they are performed, they don’t register like electronic or mechanical repetition, but feel like an organic jab-and-stammer. One of the ways they achieve this sound is by using slow strums, sounding one string at a time, rather than playing full chords, an effect emphasized by a kind of hyper-chorus effect that frequently sounds like steel drum triggers to me. It’s like a steak knife in the honey. The bass sometimes shifts to upbeats, rather than the traditional downbeats in a rock band. While it’s a technique common in funk (Larry Graham is a master), Palm uses it to disrupt anticipations rather than groove.

Other rhythmic approaches include polyrhythms. I regularly hear parts in three played over rhythms in two or four. On some tracks, rather than lock in on a riff, the band will play a musical statement across multiple instruments. For example, in “Forced Hand,” a musical phrase starts on guitar, continues on drums, and ends on bass. Some first-time listeners may find these approaches jarring, but after a few listens, the songs are as hummable as any radio pop.

The lyrics, often about relationships or lost loves, are cryptic, but not wholly abstract. 

The story in “Pearly” feels just outside of comprehension, but shimmers with vague dread. The song is about a love and a vow, but it’s unclear what kind of love and what kind of vow. 

The first verse ends with “My own rules/Are always best when broken” and leads into the commitment or warning of the chorus: “I want nothing but the best for us.” The end of the song turns, and makes the direction of the danger ambiguous. Someone “enduring a vow” sounds unpleasant and recasts the “I want nothing but the best for us” line:

In a void
You put a lock on the door
But you endure
A vow

A vow to stop at nothing
I want nothing but the best for us

The lyrics are tinged with obsession, while the music ripples with bright elements like a vocal choir sample or trigger saying “Ahhh!,” chorus effeects, and handclaps. The song feels like horror in daylight as it bleeds away, slowing, then staggering to silence. 

“Composite” features the aforementioned strumming effect, yet bounces in ways reminiscent of late-’60s Beach Boys or yacht rock. The “composite” in the lyrics–“Let me put the pieces back in place”–could be referring to a relationship or the world at large. Lyrics like “Fake a nap to breathe in for a while” capture that kind of peculiar dread about the unpeculiar, an amorphous doubt on a sunny Saturday. 

“Composite” also describes the song’s structure. For example, the last “verse” is really a composite of various song elements. Many of the songs on Rock Island play with verse-chorus-verse structure, but bend and alter it, often by having one or two different bridges or alternate, sometimes intertwining, sections.

While “Dog Milk” and “Color Code” are two favorites, I keep coming back to “Heavy Lifting.” And though the songs may have little to do with each other, I keep pairing it in my mind with the Talking Heads’ track “The Book I Read.” Both songs take quotidian objects and events, but say so much with that simplicity. “The book I read was in your eyes” has been a line that has stayed with me since I first heard it. Similarly, “Heavy Lifting” has lines like “Go out and let the cat in/Work out a plan to retire” or “You want more/Well, so do I (conditioned?) / The last one / I’ll ask you for.” Half of the song is a gorgeous, hypnotic intertwining of mostly instrumental parts. It reminds me of the “Na na na na” part of “The Book I Read” or the last third of “Found a Job,” David Byrne’s short instrumental section written as a tribute to Steve Reich–or at least meant to emulate some of Reich’s compositional techniques. These are short, meditative musical gifts big enough to live in.

While the lyrical content is more in line with the rest of the album, “Swimmer” sounds like the Residents covering “Kokomo.” It combines lyrics like “They’ll bend your eye’s ‘til all you can see is the sunshine” with electronic horn and percussion sounds that echo Residential soundscapes. 

Sometimes instrumentals feel out of place on rock/pop records, like unfinished songs. On Rock Island, the instrumentals contribute to the whole. The instrumental track “20664” opens with Eno-esque buzzing and synth before uneven hip hop electronic drums or drum triggers–that echo the opening of the album– take over the track. “Theme from Rock Island” features jangly guitars under a theme built on melodica or keyboard violin–or possibly triggers meant to sound like that. Either way, they have a breathy quality and the melodic sense of other vocal songs on the record.

Rock Island approaches at slants and angles that make it evocative, but hard to classify. Palm satisfyingly sounds like a coherent, unique whole, and not a solo project in waiting. It will be interesting to hear where they go next.

You can listen to and order Rock Island on Palm’s Bandcamp page. 


McClurg

Stephen McClurg (Episode 24) writes and teaches in Birmingham, Alabama. He co-hosts The Outrider Podcast, writes at Eunoia Solstice, and infrequently blogs. He has contributed music as a solo artist and with the group Necronomikids to past episodes of The Drunken Odyssey.