The first two albums from Icarus Himself, “Coffins” and “Mexico,” left me wanting something almost totally at odds with singer-songwriter Nick Whetro’s aesthetic: more.
Whetro doesn’t really do “more.” The jumbles of words that drift in and out of our minds every day -- a strand of overheard conversation, a half-remembered letter to an old love, a five word observation about someone we’ll never see again, a pang of love or hurt -- Whetro holds onto these fragments and crafts two or three minutes of song around them. Sometimes he fills in context, often he doesn’t. He repeats the same phrases over and over again, the same guitar lines, until these flashes of inspiration or illumination become their own story -- the story of all the little things we notice and forget, or try to forget but can’t, or bury until they pile up in our subconscious and explode.
Here’s Whetro on menial labor at the start of his new record, “Career Culture”: “Wake up. Wake up. It’s time to do it all over again.” And again. And again. And again. There are maybe fifty words in the whole song, because the repetition IS the story -- the clocking in, the clocking out, the soul-crushing drone day after day after day. A life in three minutes.
“Career Culture” follows that life longer than usual for Whetro, stitching together eleven such moments into a loose song cycle about a flight from working class tedium in search of “my time in the sun” (naturally our hero moves from cloudy Indiana to luminous Wisconsin), and finding love along the way. Connecting these minimalist dots is a real band coming into its own. Drummer Brad Kolberg and instrumentalist Karl Christenson have turned this one-time one-man side-project into a three piece that fills in the spaces around Whetro’s words with all the things previously left unsaid.
In retrospect, while the chilly sparseness of “Coffins” was appropriate, it also underlined Whetro’s minimalism a little more than necessary. The island beat flirtations of the “Mexico” EP are now as much a part of the band’s sound as Whetro’s lonely yowl, and they take Whetro’s song to more deeply-felt and inhabitable places. Maracas and a dreamy guitar score “Mornings in the Bar” like a sad vacation from reality, giving the song a buzz of short-lived pleasure that makes its pain more real. Jungle drums and bass make the drive to “WI via IN”sound a lot more exciting than I remember it -- point being that starting over is dramatic no matter where it’s happening. And if you still have a hard time imagining a place in the sun in Wisconsin, then you haven’t heard “On Your Side,” a love ballad Whetro delivers with cautious calm over an ecstatic electric guitar, synth, and drum loop, the music voicing the joy behind Whetro’s quiet tenderness. It’s one of the best songs of the year, and most of the lyrics are in the title.
So no, an Icarus Himself album might never cross the 45-minute mark, might never spill into a double album, might never inspire a rock opera. After “Career Culture,” I wouldn’t expect anything less.
Joey Tayler is the lead writer on Rocksposure.com. Based out of Milwaukee, WI, he is always looking for a new show to see. If there is something you think he should be listening to, send him an email at JoeyT@Rocksposure.com