Raccoons inspire stories. They get into trashcans and roman-candle crosshairs and reproduce in people's attics so that no landlord would ever say a kind word about them. They're likable in that way, even if they're a bit shifty and you wouldn't trust one with your cat.
Such are If and It, who released Raccoon this month, as if celebrating the one-year anniversary of last year's double album release, Sparkly Gold and Bleeding Moon. They are lyrical and charming even if they aren't always obviously embraceable. Vocalist Evan Parker is still something of an acquired taste, warbling at times and subdued, especially unlike the yellers that populate pop music nowadays.
In fact, much of the 10-song record is a study in reserved subtlety. While there are a variety of instruments and tracks — toy pianos, real pianos, differing Casio tones, alongside varying guitar-bass-drums combo — they are used sparingly to add accent here and there. Even their guests are minimalist, with just a single delicate backing vocal from lisa/liza's Liza Victoria on the opening "Puppet Bird." She flits in and out: "And if this evening suddenly got better/Do you think you might stick around/And paint me another picture?"
There are certain digital flourishes, too, as in the record-playing-backward vibe to "Fox Cemetery" or the right-channel floating bits in "Foggy Mind." Like their recording project in an attic in Gray, the effect is like bringing your iPhones to the country, like being able to check the hockey score among the trees. Parker even does full-blown bleak: "An empty house built on empty love/In the cold of the north."
For a three-song run, though, they are warm and thoughtful, like cuddly stuffed raccoons. Starting with the title track, moving through "Baby's Eyes," and finishing with "A Frog Named Square," If and It approach a slowed-down Phantom Buffalo, setting mood with the low-down Casio of "Raccoon" and bringing in a Neil Young harmonica in "Baby's Eyes" that will make you sigh and remember the first time you heard Harvest Moon.
Tim Alan Walker's bass hints at disco for moments, Chris DiBiasio switches to jazzy brushes, and things can get pretty ethereal: "I tied a string on her feather/Just to see if her wings could carry me back to the sea."
"Frog" is the most country, which If and It can be from time to time, and the squeezebox can intrude on the vocals just so as to edge its way in front of your attention. There's even some classic rock wanderlust: "I got lost on my way to the castle, with my good friend/We had the stars in our hand." The close is hypnotic like the new National album, fuzzed out with a repeating vocal.
Just like the finishing "Your Failure," a similarly lurching track where many guitarists would have their amp about 100 times louder. There's a little bit of that Calexico/Iron & Wine vibe here, but without the lushness, the prettiness. It's not glossy. It's rough around the edges. It's prickly. But it's not terra cotta bad (I have a terra cotta phobia of sorts).
"Funhouse" gets sour in the bridge, too, but you'll kick yourself if you don't hear this guitar tone in the open, or the sound like someone playing wine glasses that rings out of the verse: "Hold on, there's no escape from the mess that they've made/And we are two feathers floating away from one another."