By Craig Howieson
Kip Berman looks further into the past for his influences as The Natural – creating a timeless record of songs that will certainly linger on
Kip Berman, the former frontman of The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, spent ten years in Brooklyn where, along with his band of rotating musicians, he produced four records of heartfelt indie shoegaze that leant heavily on influences ranging from the art pop of Glasgow in the late ’80s to Chicago’s alt-rock of the ‘90s. His innate ability to absorb his influences and replicate them in a way that was respectful – while still providing a new perspective – was just one of the reasons for his band’s success. His songs seemed to come from another time, but spoke to you in that direct moment; a past to enjoy in the present. On his first solo record as The Natvral, his influences may have changed, but the impact is the same.
Now living in Princeton, New Jersey with his young family, he needed a new project under which to explore new themes, and that reflected his new lifestyle. Tethers is a record filled with characters whose lives have become untethered in a way in which Berman’s has not. You can feel his presence in the songs, but they act as echoes of lives that could have been. As he steps into the mirror to roam around a parallel world that shares a similar past, but an alternate present, he is reminded of the different paths his life could have taken. There is a power in the lessons learned through imagining – it is a form of enlightenment without the consequences. We all seek a mooring to safeguard us from life’s stormy seas, but that doesn’t mean we stop learning from the world around us once we have found it.
One of the most striking differences between The Natvral and his work with The Pains of Being Pure At Heart is Berman’s voice and the unvarnished clarity with which the songs are presented – his hushed delivery now replaced by a grizzled yearn. As he careers down the lane looking for a strike on opener Why Don’t You Come Out Anymore? it is made abundantly clear that Tethers shares more DNA with Highway 61 Revisited era Dylan than it does with The Jesus and Mary Chain. And gone are the layers upon layers of guitar. Recorded live for the most part with Berman’s Telecaster bypassing the labyrinth of pedals that would once have been a prerequisite for his set up, the effect on the songs is a classic immediacy. Hammond organ flourishes are beautifully placed, but even they do not distract from the fact these songs could be played on a stage, or in the back of a car, and the songwriting would shine through.
There is a recognisable melancholy in Tears Of Gold – the same melancholy that accompanies the regret of still being up to see the sunrise following a night of hedonism that should have been put to bed. But Berman never stands still long enough to wallow or judge, and on Stay In The Country, he barrels through a county and blues-tinged four and a half minutes that owes as much to Hiss Golden Messenger and Strand Of Oaks as it does to Neil Young.
There are no superfluous adornments or studio trickery on Tethers, but perhaps sometimes the best songs are those that remain as they were conceived. As we take stock of our own good fortune and the things that keep us grounded, Tethers is a place of comfort: a world of characters we can view the world through regardless of our own situation. It’s a collection full of melodies to carry with us, to hum and whistle, as we go about our own tethered days.
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