"Oh, how you're heart's on your sleeve," muses Nick Whetro over some harmless acoustic strumming on album-opener "Pigg." Sounds like a good thing, right?
Not so much. A menacing twang drifts in and darkens Whetro's mood until that heart "looks like a piece of dead meat."
In other words, "keep it to yourself," an unsettling sentiment coming from that most heart-on-sleeve variety of musician, the folksy troubador. On his full-length debut as Icarus Himself, National Beekeepers Society founder Whetro would prefer all that touchy-feely meat rot out of sight, or, better yet, in a box six feet under.
The abused girl suffering through the title track can't understand the joy she experiences crying after her father beats her. Such confused, hopeless wanting to feel something, anything, is too much for Whetro: "Take me away from this disease ... I just want to sleep" he moans as the song carries him away, down a country road towards "Flatwoods, WV." Things aren't any better there. A seventeen-year-old mother is forced to give her baby away, and years later she breaks down in a car and tells the story to her second son. "A heart-to-heart," Whetro calls it, and you already know how he feels about those things. Mom sobs, Whetro sounds like he's afraid of catching something -- "Mother's burden is contagious until they put pennies on her eyes" -- as the song builds to an equally rattled climax.
Again, outta sight, outta mind. "Why think death when you breathe?" Whetro wonders on happy-go-lucky "Precedence." Easy for you to say when you're not getting beaten by daddy or dragging razors down your arms. What's most interesting about "Coffins" -- Whetro torn between empathy for his tortured characters and wishing that they'd all just go away so he won't have to witness such suffering -- could strike plenty of listeners as too chilly (maybe that's why Madison label Science of Sound released the album back in balmy June).
Whetro's minimalism is just as challenging. At 27 minutes, "Coffins" doesn't wallow in any of its miseries long enough to be depressing, especially with Whetro consistently pushing his arrangements beyond their six-string origins and into intricate Bright Eyes/Wilco territory. But take a song like "Scars," for example. "She's got stars in her eyes and scars on her arms," Whetro whispers as desert guitars simmer behind him. She's also very discerning, and on Sundays she dresses according to how she feels. That's the song -- one of the LONG songs. The shortest, clocking in at a minute and a half, is a surreal ditty in which Whetro huffs cyanide and slips free of his last name to avoid God's plans for humorless "middle-class prudes." The title? "This Means Nothing."
"Coffins" DOES mean something, despite Whetro's resistance to resolution and his fantasies of escape. It's not detached music, it's music ABOUT detachment, about longing for the easy way out even when you know better, about wishing you didn't know a girl with scars on her arms who's waiting, praying for that unlikely Hallmark third act. Whetro gets more worked up warbling "Sometimes I can't stand you, but that doesn't mean I don't want you around" through gritted teeth on a song of the same name than he does on any other track -- like the girl on "Coffins," he'd rather risk the pain of feeling something than feel nothing. "January (Tennessee)" starts out like a lovers dirge, but whether the chorus is flashing back to happier times or expressing present-tense contentment, it's still an affirmation of marriage, or at least love, or at least sex.
A less-honest writer than Whetro might have you believe that a simple human connection is enough to make everything better. Closer "Lessons from the Flood" forgives but doesn't forget: a gentle piano loop accepts some modicum of peace, while Whetro's droning chit-chat -- "Oh, the weather, how's your father?" -- reminds us that "normalcy" can be its own box. On "Coffins" Whetro has made strong art out of that unsettling mix of terror, shame, and emphathy we feel at the sight of blood seeping through loose bandages; to fulfill the promise of this record, he'll have to stare at that dead meat a little longer next time.
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
Learn More about Icarus Himself and hear a few tracks off of "Coffins" by clicking here