It’s fitting that Zach Braff is about to successfully complete a kickstarter for Garden State Two: Electric Whimsy-loo as I soak in the new Mike Feuerstack record. For better or for worse, Garden State is now associated with the realization that music (or maybe just The Shins) can change your life.
I’ve honestly never felt that way about a band or a song, but without question certain musicians have become part of my life. There are a handful of artists whose words I value like extremely personal bar stool conversations. They have sound tracked my years, not simply added cinematic drama to specific moments. That’s probably why the sad passing of people I’ve never met - like Jason Molina or Adam Yauch - can leave a surprisingly deep hole in my soul.
I can remember the first time I saw Snailhouse. They opened for Davey von Bohlen’s new group at The Horseshoe in Toronto and I can’t forget how dismissive I was when I asked my buddy, “who the f@ck is Snailhouse” and being shocked that people were leaving before the headliner even played. I didn’t think about the band again until I got a copy of The Silence Show and realized the error in my judgment.
Seven years and countless records later it’s become very hard to be objective when hearing Mike sing. His use of words; the concise, humble couplets that go unnoticed on casual listen are magical and I value their worth much like a savings account or RRSP. His work is a long term investment, not a short term gain from a hot stock. I don’t need Mike’s songs for euphoric rushes or to mimic the harsh burn of regret filled shots. No, Feuerstack’s words or more compass and companion than any sort of resolution.
Tambourine Death Bed, essentially a singer/songwriter record, is presented with little variation in pace or delivery, but the end results couldn’t be more engaging. These songs are a heartfelt, one-sided conversation punctuated by spot on observations and metaphors (“flowers in the city stay pretty even in amongst the weeds” or “doves and vultures use the same sky”). Beautiful and patient, this record is the result of years Mike spent practicing his craft and being forced to question if the struggle is worth it. It’s written for love of art and life, a back porch whisper that could float in the wind.
Sadly, that weightlessness means that the nuances he adds to his arrangements are often overlooked, especially in this intimate collection of home recordings. Subtle horn work, distortion, female vocals; all of these elements are as vital to the final mix as his gentle picks. The lovely duet “Scorekeeper”, starts slowly with long lazy guitar notes and a soft bed of horns, but Feuerstack and Stetson slowly chip away at the foundation until all that remains is brief chaos folowed by gentle waves of noise. “The Hill” is open and spare, but it’s the horn work that really defines the three-minutes. Electric work and Laurel Sprengelmeyer’s soulful coos give “Flowers in the City” a smoldering heat. Even “Trees”, the most straightforward and delightful melody on the record, is given surprising depth.
But at the end of the day, it’s still Mike’s writing and voice that stands front and centre. It’s hard to find a North star in this ever clouding world and I know it’s easy to fall victim to hyperbole and compare your favorites to the biggest and brightest stars, but for me, Feuerstack shines as bright and true as Tom Waits. Sonically they sound nothing alike, and obviously Mike hasn’t achieved any the same stratospheric levels of acclaim, but both have stayed true to their vision and refuse to compromise their art. Both have provided me with hours of enjoyment, and while neither has changed my life, I can’t imagine my life without either’s song playing in it.