Crate-Digging: Coma Cinema – Baby Prayers

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Summer Time in Hell, 2009)

Gosh, 2010 was such a great year for discovering music: I’ve officially fallen in love with microlabels specializing in outsider genres. You know the ones – those that produce 200-cassette runs, limited deluxe LPs, CDRs – there’s a treasure trove just waiting to be unearthed out in the worldwide ether. Coma Cinema is even further removed from these release methods, specializing in free instant downloads of his albums from his website. Although his forthcoming album, Blue Suicide, will be released on vinyl and cassette in January, it will also be available for download – in fact, Mat Cothran, the sole member of Coma Cinema, has little regard for making any money at this whole recording music thing,* even though he’s currently an out music blog darling, making several year-end best-of lists with 2010’s Stoned Alone. [Note: It didn’t make mine, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have – I just haven’t listened to it yet…] He’s even been profiled on a certain popular pronged-hayfork-related site, elevating his visibility to a much greater degree. So 2011 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the 22-year-old Spartanburg, South Carolina, resident.

*Read a great article over at Paste Magazine for a peek into Cothran’s mindset.

But Baby Prayers was Cothran’s first release under the Coma Cinema moniker, and even with this first release, he’s proven his skill as a lo-fi pop auteur, playing all instruments and recording all tracks with a homespun charm that alternates between intimate warmth and energetic boisterousness, while remaining grounded in insular lyricism. Sound familiar? It should – Cothran shares characteristics with other bedroom four-trackers, from Rob Crow bands Thingy and Heavy Vegetable to Robert Schneider’s The Apples in Stereo. In fact, that’s a good amalgamation – lure Crow and Schneider to a scrapyard, ostensibly with the promise of a toy piano, ukulele, or bag of weed, have them meet on the floor of the car compactor, let ’er rip, and see what happens. Actually, that would probably be a lot messier than if you just let them jam together. Toy piano, ukulele, and weed sure to be included. Oh, Cothran’s voice sounds quite a bit like Schneider’s nasal singing, particularly on pop-gold opener “Be Human,” although at a couple points he takes a Calvin Johnson-esque approach and accompanies himself an octave lower – a neat trick that works well and recalls Johnson’s contribution to Beck’s “Atmospheric Conditions” from his One Foot in the Grave album.

But we all know recording’s come a long way – the home studio needs only a computer, and the cassette four-track machines of the past only need to be used when the homespun sound is desired. (And it can be a very desirable sound.) But the hisses and pops are absent from Baby Prayers, and Coma Cinema obviously labors over his mix. He traffics mostly in acoustic guitar, keyboard, synthesizers, periodic violin, and rudimentary drums, resulting in a warm and effortless invitation. He doesn’t overstay his welcome either, and this is part of the charm – most tracks last 1:30 to 2:00. Cothran enters, states his case with a memorable lyric or melody, and gets out before it becomes too cumbersome – Guided By Voices used to be masters at this. (And talk about tape hiss.) And even though songs are impeccably composed, Baby Prayers still manages to revel in the spontaneous flaw, much like Isaac Brock would in his early excursions as Modest Mouse – the guitar burp on “You (Your Fears),” the microphone bump on “She’s a Dentist,” the squirrely rhythm at a point or two (“She’s a Dentist,” “Nothin’”). It’s all incredibly endearing.

And it’s all incredibly put together too – as cozy as it is to wrap yourself in Coma Cinema, there’s an edge to the lyrics that betrays a sense of unhappiness or regret, and balances the sweet with a touch of bitter. On “We Are Only Time,” Cothran digs into unhealthy relationships and the toll righting them takes: “God dug me out of my mother’s drunken heart, I will remember who I was / We are only time, and we pull ourselves apart … That’s what hell does for love.” On “Cop Caller” he pleads “Don’t fake me out / Don’t flake out on me now.” On “Certainty” he rails against those – and maybe even himself – who spend an unhealthy amount of time outside of reality, pining for lives they’ll never have: “You live inside a dead dream / of some dead boy you do not know.” On “Baby Prayers” he throws up his hands in absurdist defeat, as he crows “My parents are on fire” throughout the chorus. And on “Daffodils,” which sonically and lyrically recalls early Modest Mouse, Cothran’s as misguided as a young Brock when he sings “Do drugs, do drugs, and fall in love / There’s nothing better than drugs and love.” All this is so everyday yet so compellingly staged – I’ve certainly been where “Daffodils” goes, and the crash is as disastrously appealing as the high.

You can dissect all you want – it’s the songs that sell Baby Prayers. The processed beats and acoustic melody of album standout “9/11 (Free Jazz)” would have me crowing it as a top song this year – if of course this year was 2009. The morose and enveloping organ, drum machine, and desperation of “Cop Caller” are gorgeous. The spunky “Be Human” and piano ballad “Flower Pills” bookend the album nicely. And the early Built to Spill-isms of “Nothin’” recall that band even without any guitar involved. Coma Cinema prove with this release that home-recorded albums deserve to be taken seriously. It’s a welcome addition to the grassroots endeavors of purposeful musicians.

RIYL: The Apples in Stereo, Thingy, Freak Owls

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