Joplin Rice - Spine Adagio II / The Prince
When it comes to reviewing folk-influenced music, I'll admit that my tastes can lean toward the lo-fidelity emo end of the spectrum. I find that many of the sleeker, more well-produced releases of the genre can resort to handclaps and predictable chord progressions to reel listeners in. Even an act with some underground cred can stoop to the level of The Lumineers when it comes to their songwriting. Joplin Rice's latest release, a double album titled Spine Adagio II / The Prince, circumvents these problems, delivering polished yet fuzzy pop that reaches toward the high standard set by Merge Records icons like Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, even the lovable melodrama of Arcade Fire. Blend all those bands together with a generous helping of melancholia, and you have the essence of the songs crafted by this Lexington, Kentucky based singer-songwriter.
The Spine Adagio half of the release is the more approachable of the two, featuring more varied instrumentation and noticeably shorter song lengths. It seeks to immediately plunge itself into its observer: marching-band drums rumble in the distance while molten chords seep like lava through the speakers, a striking introduction to "Spitting Fire", the album's opening track. The pairing of a crunchy drone with driving percussion reminds me of a similarly effective opener, "Recharge and Revolt" by the Raveonettes. A trebly acoustic guitar peeks out from the crest of these waves of static, providing a greater sense of melody to the piece. Rice's raspy vocals spill into the bubbling sound soup, bleeding through the mic. If you've listened to Grow Horns, who I've previously reviewed, his voice might sound pretty familiar to Miles Urosevich's.
An overwhelming sense of sadness flows through Spine Adagio's veins. The guitars are accented with a shimmery finish, but are turned dark by bassy piano notes and booming drums. The lyrics reveal a fascination with bones, muscles nerves and what holds together and moves these parts, not unlike those on NMH's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I find that it's not songs that I seek out while listening to the album, but moments. The keening keyboard in the middle of "The Pipes pt. 2", the constantly building tension in "Afterkiss" and the haunting, reverby vocals of "Cathedral".
The Prince delves into more experimentation than we saw on Spine Adagio, its respective opening track, "Ruins" lasting nearly eight minutes. It commences with sparse guitar noodling, phasing in and out of dissonance. It slowly pieces itself together, enough so that at around the two minute mark it can support lyrics. The sadness from the previous album is still present, perhaps even more so, in Rice's delivery. At the four minute mark, another change, as Spanish guitar chords rush into the mix, followed by heavy percussion. The Prince is less fuzz-drenched, but more nuanced than its predecessor, and I think it greatly benefits from that. Recommended tracks are "Reliquary", which shares a sort of Southern European vibe with The Decembrists, and "November 17th", which features a gorgeous farewell guitar solo. There's a lot to take in on this double album, but it's best to just jump in and embrace its immensity. Though it's a bit self indulgent, little time is wasted on Spine Adagio II / The Prince, making for a very commendable release.