J. Tillman – [Album]

Saturday, 05 September 2009

I have a method for reviewing albums. Start with some really strong coffee, boot up iTunes, and type haphazardly. And generally, as I listen through, I hunt for gems. The songs that really pop from the rest of the album, either because of their sound, rhythm, construction, lyrics, or really badass solos. And these become signposts for the album—they sort of lead you through your listen, encouraging markers that keep you from feeling like the band leading this little caravan is wandering aimlessly in a desert of same sound-ness. So I started listening to J. Tillman’s Year In The Kingdom with this same approach.

And I got nothing. No markers.

I don’t even have a freakin’ stick to put in the ground.

Tillman, a member of the infamous Fleet Foxes (a vinyl favorite of mine) presents us with nine folksy tracks that are pretty much interchangeable. All feature Tillman crooning with an acoustic guitar strumming along, and then are sprinkled intermittently with accompanying instruments that are more for decoration than flavor. The most prominent use of any other instrument is in the second track, “Crosswinds,” which opens with grinding mechanical sounds and whipping flutes that hold their own against Tillman’s acoustic machinations, at least for a little while. The tempo is constant—some might say stagnant—and never really speeds up or slows down. Like a very cautious driver, Tillman keeps us level at 25 mph.

I looked to the lyrics for some kind of help and got a shrug. Now let’s be fair. They’re not bad lyrics. But they’re not exactly amazing either, and they don’t do enough to buoy up the sameness of the sound. They deal with love, repentance, deep-seeded sadness, and sex (see: “Earthly Bodies”). And again, they’re not bad. But with the tempo and the music accompanying it, it feels like we’ve heard this before. David Bazan Tillman ain’t.

But is it bad? Is this a worthless album doomed for the bargain bin at CD Warehouse? Not necessarily. Just because it’s not avant garde stuff with a wide array of sounds and speeds doesn’t make it bad. It’s just not an album that you listen to just to listen to. It’s an album you do stuff to. The slow folksy ambiance makes a wonderful travel companion for road trips, or talking with friends. Like so many copies of Norah Jones breakthrough album, it’s a beautiful sound, and there will probably be a standout or two you prefer. But ultimately you probably put it on to listen to as you make dinner.  

But hey, mayhap you’re into the slow waltzing sound of an acoustic guitar and a man. Maybe you like the simplicity of its nature, the stripped-down folksy-ness that is constant and uncomplicated. By all means, listen and enjoy. If you need a little more somethin’-somethin’ going on, pop in Iron and Wine or Fleet Foxes. As for me, I’m taking the space I would have spent talking about the songs on this album and putting it up for rent.


“Though I have Wronged You” – [mp3]
“Earthly Bodies” – [mp3]

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