LOOKING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION Billy Libby.
Billy Libby's new EP, Pitter Patter, is such a step forward for him that I half expected he'd have slapped the name William Elizabeth on the packaging. (He's heard that one before, certainly.) The care and attention to detail with which he's put it together is unmistakable. The songs, the playing, the style are all enough to grab your attention, but this is a whole-package kind of attraction.
It's the aesthetic. A chilling warmth. A fuzzy crispness. There's something he's doing that just makes you want to listen, even though it can sometimes be hard to pick out a lyric or a hook or anything in particular that's going to make you sit up and take notice.
I was pretty well hooked from the open. "Bus Ride" starts with growing strings from Lauren Hastings (violin) and Emily Dix Thomas (cello), then moves into a gentle waltz, with the feel of the alps lent by chiming bells, and the lovely pairing of Libby's and Erin Sprinkle's (Plains) vocals. They sing nearly the entire thing in tandem, before a cool little trade-off piece:
Billy: "My plan is scribbling, I am"
Erin: "Writing a letter to myself"
Both: "Addressed to no one, really, no one, really."
Then there's lots of ethereal "ooh-oooh" stuff into the finish. It's very pretty, and Stu Mahan bowing the upright bass provides a nice bottom end onto which all of that light and airy stuff can hang.
That Libby recorded much of this whole album by himself is impressive, but he had help. Sean Morin (Cambiata, Daro) does a lot of things well and his fingerprints are all over this. He plays ukulele on "Bus Ride," guitar elsewhere, with some organ and percussion and vocals throughout. Old Cambiata friend Miguel Barajas lends a lead to "Leaves." Sprinkle gets co-writing credit on the three songs where we hear her wonderfully complementary vocals.
As with all of these solo projects populated by any number of Portland's talented musicians-for-hire/friends, there's a temptation to wonder just what the guy with his name on the record actually did. Bring in some demos on acoustic guitar and let the talent go to work writing their parts and laying down tracks to make him look impressive?
Sometimes, that's certainly the case. Here? Libby's stamp is awfully hard to shake. The bells he plays. The percussion. His resonant bass drum in "Leaves." The shaker that pops into the right then the left channel for just a couple of pops at the beginning of "Blue Eyed" that's such a nice touch for the headphones wearers. The clacking four-beat piece of percussion that wends its way into "The Winter Song."
There are so many elegant touches here, it's hard to believe this is anything other than the culmination of a vision that lots of people were willing to get behind.
There's definitely an air of Sufjan Stevens, as at the beginning of "The Dirtiest Spots" and where the EP gets its name — "The Constant pitter patter of a leaking kitchen sink" — before it gets slightly more aggressive and driving: "It's the transparent sea/Makes it easier to forget they're here/I tend to ignore, but sink a little more/To the dampest dank and dirtiest spots on this apartment floor."