(Velvet Blue Music, 2013)
I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t start a Frank Lenz review without mentioning his involvement over the years with various indie rock stalwarts, including Starflyer 59, The Lassie Foundation, Pedro the Lion, and Charity Empressa. That’s some pretty good company he’s kept, and it’s all a good starting point when discussing where Lenz lands on the continuum of modern music. And let’s face it – that’s a pretty big continuum. In fact, it’s pretty arguable that all of those bands represent relative musical specks when viewed from the great distance of time. (Well, Starflyer 59 has a lot of records. Pedro the Lion too. Still specks though.) And when you consider that we’re all just insignificant spots of dust in an ever-expanding universe, you can understand how a speck on a micro-continuum such as modern music looks on the Grand Continuum of all time and space. Pretty bloody small.
Where did that come from? What’s my point? Two questions that have no real answers.
Maybe we’ll figure out, at least a little bit, what we specks mean to ourselves by a bit of self-examination, and Water Tiger is the perfect backdrop for that. Lenz is a master at crafting what seems like a soundtrack to an unmade film here, filled with grand pop flourishes and subtle, complex arrangements, along the same lines as Jon Brion and Mark Mothersbaugh. You can’t get more self-examine-y than Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Brion) or Wes Anderson’s early films (Mothersbaugh), and even Lenz’s videos seem like miniature movies. Take “Pentasynth” for example, and its sepia-toned melancholic road trippery, enabled by its accompanying visuals surely, but completely effective in its evocation of intricate personal feelings. It’s much more than incidental music – it forces you to pay attention to it, not to focus on something else while it plays in the background.
Likewise, leadoff track “Complex Miles and Undersea Adventure” could easily pass for incidental music in, let’s say, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou since it has the word “Undersea” in the title and heck, why not stick with the theme? I first heard “Pentasynth” as my introduction to this album, but it’s “Complex Miles” that made me a true believer, and it’s wise to have it at track one. Like “Pentasynth,” though, the song is incidental music in this style only – we’re talking foreground tunage here. “Two Nudes Make a Right” falls on the more upbeat side of the Mothersbaugh scale (if we’re really continuing to do that), even hinting at Tortoise’s more oddball pop moments. It’s a gig-opener, or a gig-closer in the event Lenz and his band want to stretch it out into jammy krautrock territory (and they could, quite easily).
And then there are the absolute gems scattered throughout the record, perhaps none so polished than “All the Gears in the World,” a song that builds beautifully from gentle acoustic plucking, and is joined by muted horns (or is that synth horns?) and xylophone hits. It’s followed by the similarly orchestrated “Orphan Test,” and each could easily fit on one of Sufjan Stevens’ state records. (And if you know me at all, you know I’m a huge sucker for Sufjan’s Illinois album.) You should stick with Water Tiger all the way to the end, too (and why wouldn’t you?), for a little treat. I’m not going to give it away, but “Debts Lance (for Bella)” sounds like nothing else on the album, and works just fine because as well as in spite of it.
I guess in the end I’m just unconcerned with the big picture, and would prefer to experience a record like Water Tiger on its terms, losing myself in the enjoyment I inherently find in the spaces between the huge concepts. I’m not under some delusion of grandeur, with some expectation that my life (or yours) is heading in a direction filled with meaning and understanding. But if I’m capable of perspective – like Lenz is here, clearly – then I’m in good shape. That’s why I can get behind Water Tiger: it’s meaningful, to me, in all the best ways, in the greatest detail.
RIYL: The Six Parts Seven, The American Analog Set, Mark Mothersbaugh’s and Jon Brion’s soundtrack work, instrumental Sufjan Stevens