These days, folks make records faster than nervous singer-songwriters forget the words to their own tunes.
Jenny Lewis forged the delectable, bite-size Rabbit Fur Coat in the time between hairdos — I mean, between Rilo Kiley’s increasing obligations — finishing lyrics on the plane. Will Oldham churns out projects faster than I can spot them. And that’s all well and good. These people have their voices and they’re sticking with them. But, luckily, San Francisco’s Michael Talbott and the Wolfkings took their sweet time constructing Freeze–Die–Come to Life (Antenna Farm), a panoramic realization of earthy songs that have been floating around in the gentle, gifted Talbott’s head for years.
The resulting depth is fantastic. Underneath sonic icebergs freezing and melting and taking form again, there are oceans upon oceans, dark worlds within illuminate worlds. The many life-forms on this record swirl around us like the icy but essential winds in the opener, "Winter Streets."
"I’d been kicking these songs around for a while," Talbott says, speaking in a Mission District café on a break from his work in film restoration. The record would probably not have manifested but for the encouragement of Court and Spark’s M.C. Taylor and Scott Hirsch, good friends of Talbott’s. They’d heard his tunes over the years and believed in his vision. "They offered to be my backing band, and we started playing. Then they offered to make a record for me," he says with gratitude.
Taylor and Hirsch are the producers and a definitive part of the extensive backup band. "We didn’t have any financial constraints. I had as much time as they were willing to put in," Talbott acknowledges. They tweaked different parts over time, recording much of the album at Alabama Street Station, in San Francisco, throughout a one-year period. Oakland’s Antenna Farm Records is becoming a major indie folk club for the young and clear. It makes an excellent, publike home for this project.
There is certainly a lack of constraint here, recalling the egoless, mystic lake and hilltop murder ballads passed from singer to singer in the British folk tradition. None of the stories feel forced. Like many old tales, Freeze–Die–Come to Life flirts with darkness, caresses it, and then looks it considerately in the face. The record is modern in its focus on the fate of our hearts in often chilling, contemporary urban life, but ancient and, dare I say, traditional in its spaciousness. Keep it on for a day or two, and you’re bound to think you just saw wispy wolves scurrying around the edges of Dolores Park.
The wolfking was a mythical creature said to roam the hills of Southern California, transforming painful realities into glowing amber stones, which it then spit onto the hillside. Hard work, but easy and effective when these particular Wolfkings pace it so well. In the making of the album, one song, "The Passenger," naturally split into two, which, Talbott says, act as interludes. In "Passenger II," which comes first and is enlivened by unexpected chordal resolutions, Talbott sounds like a more grounded Leonard Cohen: "I will watch you start a revolution / But I will not take a side … I am the passenger / Leaving something behind." Tender harmonies abound throughout the disc, whether painting a picture of angelic abduction, on "Angel of Light," or brewing a potent cup of twilight tea, on "Goodnight." I shudder with delight every time "Angel of Light" reaches the trembling vocal climax: "Will you regret / Each pirouette / That you’ve turned?"
"The record is hushed and acoustic," Talbott confesses when I ask about the upcoming record-release show. "It’s good to listen to by yourself. But that doesn’t always translate when you play bars." Gathering from the talented local flock that plays on the album, Talbott formed an electric six-piece. The live shows are "louder and more aggressive," he declares, adding that no one in the audience will "get bored." And neither will the musicians, the tricksters, or the wolf-eyed shape-shifters, because each song has been specially reworked to thrive in the live environment.
In a nation where every viewpoint is clearly marked and where Mark Twain’s early take on the budding tourist industry, Innocents Abroad, is quickly losing its humor because we’re all like that these days, it’s refreshing to see Talbott and his brethren inhabiting the musical landscape so fully, not content to be tourists. It’s like, well, freezing, dying, and, while doing nothing but listening, coming to life. SFBG
Michael Talbott and the Wolfkings CD release party
With Last of the Blacksmiths, Citay, Broker/Dealer, Jeffrodisiac,
and artwork by Isota Records’ Nathaniel Russell
Thurs/27, 8 p.m.
119 Utah, SF