If you're going to make huge structural changes, before your third record is a fine time to do it. Portland rock band Metal Feathers may now be referenced against their back catalogue, which much of Handful of Fog, their excellent and fantastically deep third record, makes sound like a profoundly different band. And they kind of are. The organ, employed almost emblematically on Statistically Marred and Contrast Eats the Slimey Green, is virtually gone. Its player, Derek Lobley, has shifted to drums, replacing the departed Althea Pajak.
TIGHTLY WOVEN Metal Feathers as a trio.
Whether that registers as a subtle or massive change depends on your familiarity with the band. Jay Lobley's songs have always been mercurial. They very clearly split his allegiances between a virtuosity for hook-driven pop perfection and a willful self-effacement — some might say self-medication — that manifests in a flair for the erratic. This is a constant variable. It doesn't change on Handful of Fog — and probably never will — but you might be surprised to learn how much else has.
As a four-piece, Metal Feathers have rattled off songs as slick as Television, as whimsical as Guided By Voices, or as caked-in-wanderlust as late '80s Sonic Youth. This trio version can hit all those notes too. But at its core, indeed from the opening spasm of "This Band is a Secret," it's clear that Handful of Fog observes a fundamentally different task. Its 12 songs bore into an interior that Lobley and co. have heretofore only winkingly flashed at their listeners. Yet instead of burying it behind a barrage of clever melodies, lo-fi orthodoxies, and studious displays of indie-rock historiography, this record uncovers it for all that it's worth.
Immediately, at least three songs might strike listeners as the best they've ever written. The ballad "I Hold Her Up" is a sort of sickly-sweet sequel to Statistically Marred's "Tough" (or, if you know your Lobley, the entire A-side of Cult Maze's 35, 36) while "Rotten Cop" levies a muscular riff against the most naked display of pathos the frontman has yet attempted. In varying hues, they're easily the most stirringly emotional tracks in the catalog, yet neither would prepare you for "In the Moon and Still," a dizzying, rapturous composition as affecting and yearningly psychedelic as anything — no shit — that Dinosaur Jr. or My Bloody Valentine has ever done.
This growth in sound is not a contrivance; there is evidence everywhere of band members shifting dynamics and gaining each others' trust. It is pronounced in the bass lines of Jason Rogers, which make for some of the album's most memorable moments, and it's often marvelous to witness in the intrepid drumming of the younger Lobley. And while several jammier, disheveled passages can attest that this new unit is still trying to cohere, there are less tangible reasons to believe they're tighter than ever.
A good chunk of the album's second act puts this on display. The fleet "Witch Tricks" is like Garage Rock 101, and "Sparkle Motorcycle" spills a guitar squall onto some particularly spirited drumming. Jay makes like Zoot Horn Rollo on the six-string interlude "Of Human Bandages," and the jigsaw diptych "West End Blackout/The End of 'Chains'" is a gorgeous piece of fuck-it sonic bricolage, on par with the sort of slapdash brilliance found in late Paul Westerberg.