City Paper is not for tourists
Say what you will about those former-dork indie boys, they know a thing or two about loneliness. And with all due respect to the just-the-four-of-us-against-the-world mystique of rock music, it’s the loner with three days’ growth, an acoustic guitar, and tentative vocals who gets the largest share of my home listening these days. He just sometimes seems a little more…y’know, like something you should listen to at home.
Not that he always sounds all that indie—which is why I’ve been driving all my friends crazy for the past week, trying to figure out whose voice Adem Ilhan’s reminds me of. Here’s the short list: Beck (though Ilhan is less gruff), David Gray (less whiny), Nicolai Dunger (less Swedish-sounding), Chris Martin (less prone to hitting those high notes), Lawrence from Felt (less British-guy-doing-Dylan-esque). You get the idea. Ilhan, who’s just released his first solo long-player, Homesongs, under the name Adem, has one of those ur-indie voices: It’s croaky and expressive, and it wraps around relationships in the way only an untrained throat can.
Ilhan plays bass for a somewhat loosey-goosey London postrock group called Fridge, so Homesongs’ emphasis on tunes and structure is a welcome surprise. It was, duh, recorded at home. The first song, “Statued,” offers a sparse, folksy acoustic-guitar riff and some laptop burble. Ilhan’s voice gradually grows in emotion as he exhorts a couple in the grips of love—“statued” being his somewhat precious term for getting lost in a moment of romantic bliss. “Hold her in the falling rain,” he sings, raggedly harmonizing with himself. “Hold him like you’ve never done/ Let this be a moment/That you won’t forget/…’Til you die.”
Dark undercurrents aside, there’s a sense of whimsy to Ilhan’s music that may well be carefully cultivated. Most of his songs start with the very basics: acoustic guitar, programmed drums, and various tinkling things along the lines of glockenspiel and dulcimer. He uses technology to quirk up the arrangements from there: Bells, slide guitar, and harmonium all seem to get the laptop treatment, and the first thing you hear on the album is some ominous-sounding electronic hum. The approach can sound quite big in places—for example, on the slow-building “Cut” and the grandly aching “One in a Million.” Until, that is, you notice Ilhan is doing all the backup vocals by himself.
“Pillow” sounds like the kind of thing Pinocchio would sit on a rock and sing at a pivotal point in his story. With sad-as-can-be harp accompaniment, Ilhan sings of putting his head on a pillow and wonders aloud, “Could it be I’ve found my home?” “Ringing in My Ear,” by contrast, is a groovy-feelin’ 3/4 job with, like, bongos and shit, on which Ilhan gets over a lost love. “You threw me away,” he whines. “Away to the jackals/But the jackals they showed me a good time/While you were still just ringing in my ear.” It’s a bit silly and a bit pathetic, but a good enough tune so you don’t really care.
Most of Homesongs is similar thematically, musing on connections forged and connections lost—on the things that make and break what we think of as, well, home. “These Are Your Friends” is emblematic—and probably the best track here. It’s sort of stirring in a nonsensical way when Ilhan and an ever-widening chorus repeat the number’s key phrase, “Everybody needs some help sometimes.” In the video for the song, Ilhan sits in an isolated cottage, constructing tiny fanciful creatures like an old man making fishing flies, which he then releases into the world.
The whole thing recalls the warmly quirky productions of lo-fi Adem labelmates such as Lone Pigeon and King Creosote, but with an important difference. Whereas those dedicated four-trackers seem to release records to give the listener a privileged window-peek into their private residences, Ilhan has thrown the door wide open. And he wants nothing more than for you to come in for a bit of friendly advice: “Listen now—now’s the time to listen,” he tells his lost-and-on-her-own interlocutor. “There’re lessons to be learned/I’ve seen this before in my own life.” She might as well give in: On Homesongs, Ilhan proves that a little loneliness can be a great thing to share.
Philadelphia isn’t exactly London: The park system is bigger, the sun shines some of the time, and the feeling is laid-back. But Brian McTear, the City of Brotherly Love–based engineer who is Bitter Bitter Weeks, can find winter at the height of July. Revenge is a particularly downbeat record, even for a guy whose last disc found him singing lines such as “You’re wearing black, and I’m three shades of gray”—and that was on one of the happier numbers.
The title track is an acidic meditation on the Iraq war that may be an elegy for Saddam. “Oh we’ll all miss our old favorite enemies,” McTear sings. “It’s clear as a blue sky how I never wanted you dead.” There’s a bunch about the song I can’t figure out—whose point of view McTear is singing from, for instance, or what the line “Time old American foreplays” means. But when he and backup vocalists Beth Case, Amy Morrissey, and Brendan McTear start shrieking, “Revenge, revenge!,” it’s chilling in a way Michael Moore could only dream of.
Like Ilfan, McTear likes his music stripped-down. His primary shades of gray are guitar and voice, though he does write strangely jaunty tunes for his often downbeat lyrics. He’s also got a high-pitched, nasal voice that’s not unpleasant. It really makes you feel for the guy on tracks such as “A Deer in the Headlights,” which is a love song, albeit one in which McTear looks at his prospects with a new paramour and concludes, “It’s hard not to fear/The water upstream from here.” That’s one of Revenge’s simpler songs, on which McTear’s vocals are basically a nice complement to his guitar. But his voice also has the authority to cut through the album’s more expansive numbers—the smooth-then-jagged “Ghost Ride,” say, or the piano-poppy “Kings.”
“Kings,” in fact, is one of the better songs here, if only because it begins a verse with the line “Oh, you’re a big fucking cock/You complain and you cry.” It seems to be directed at a friend who’s gone conservative in his old age—or maybe just at conservatives in general. “You say the people you owe are living high off your slow luck,” McTear offers. “And damn all the things they teach kids these days/ The curse is enough.”
Sure, there’s some posturing on Revenge, but in the end there’s little difference between McTear’s homespun Fahrenheit 9/11 and Ilhan’s laptop Wizard of Oz. They’re merely different expressions of the same impulse: to transform lonely late-night musings into something that connects with as many people as possible. McTear may be screaming to an empty apartment, but damn if it doesn’t feel as if you’re right there with him.CP