James McNew (Yo La Tengo) Amps for Christ’s Canyons Cars and Crows

It's been eight years since the last album by this mysterious southern Californian group/person, a gent by the name of Henry Barnes.

It’s been eight years since the last album by this mysterious southern Californian group/person, a gent by the name of Henry Barnes. As Amps for Christ, he makes minimal, droning music that resonates deeply with British Isles folk music. But his songs are also filtered through cloudy southern New Zealand vibes, and spiritually rooted in the four-track home recording world. Beyond that, I don’t really know much about him/them, other than the fact that I like the music. So, as with previous Amps for Christ releases, I believe this album could very well have been made by a fellow who looks like a dirty old wizard and lives in a hollowed-out tree and plays instruments made from said tree. I prefer not to verify this.

To say the song arrangements are economical is putting it mildly. In fact, here it rarely sounds like more than four tracks are present in any song: guitars, a (Casio?) keyboard or an oscillator of some kind, and one voice. A little bass here and there. The album is drumless; beatless, if not for the few songs that possess a bare, handmade rhythm. There is a scarcity, if any, of echo or reverb; it’s as though everything was recorded directly, it’s almost airless. The only “effect” isn’t so much an effect as it is an undeniable truth: distortion. There’s no traditional guitar + amp feedback, just sound being pushed waaaay beyond its limits. Every song contains at least one burning, over-over-overloaded instrument, blended in harmony with lovely, crystal-clear guitar chords. Many of the songs contain absolutely beautiful, wailing guitar playing throughout, in a style highly reminiscent of NZ psych legend Billy TK. Tucked way in the back, with a rich, round Big Muff tone, it’s more like the guitar is just mournfully singing along with the song rather than stepping out in front. Often it’s the keyboard that is helplessly fuzzed out, so much so that it becomes like a chorus of bagpipes or harmonia, or wind, or bugs, or traffic. On the two-minute instrumental “Hills of Padua,” two seething, blown-out keyboards face off, like gigantic stone idols playing an ancient melody to each other, turning the air that surrounds them into cottage cheese. At the 1:07 mark, the air just can’t take it anymore, the notes begin to shudder, and then burst. It’s a hell of a moment.

All the songs seem to lead to the somber, stellar “Everybody Drives.” In it, guitars weave a dizzying, reeling pattern, distortion giving them violin-like sustain. An overloaded something chirps and squalls in the background. A breath, and then a song skulks into view, with chords and a melody which feel like a sincere warning. Then back to the top. Repeat.  All through the album, melodies which at times feel traditional make unexpected turns. Chord changes turn from meditative to surprising, even bewildering, with tremendous light/dark effect. The affecting instrumental “Miss You Mother” unfolds like someone finding new, unseen pages in their own book of childhood photos.

Amps for Christ’s songs are about harmony: between nature and man’s progress, between present and future, between noise and melody. Barnes’ voice is gentle and weary. It sounds almost like he is resigned to taking the natural sound of a human voice and preserving it with machines. He sings of oceans rising, cities falling, human life hanging on a thread. Look, I don’t know a whole lot about traditional indigenous folk music played on things such as lutes, but the ominous subject matter feels very right when matched to music that is somewhat based in ye olde days when people died of the sniffles all the time. I don’t think it matters when. It just feels like he knows something, and he’s at peace with it. Sometimes people live in a hollowed-out tree for a reason.

If you like Crystallized Movements, the Incredible String Band, Bruce Langhorne’s soundtrack to the 1971 Peter Fonda film The Hired Hand, Human Instinct, Alastair Galbraith, and what the heck, the first few Meat Puppets records, then maybe you are me. Go ahead and clear out some room in your yurt for this beautiful record.

(Full disclosure: Like Henry Barnes, I am a proud Shrimper Records recording artist. I have never met him, I have just always loved his records.)

James McNew is a member of Yo La Tengo. You can follow him on Twitter here.