Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Shady Retreat - Peasant

Shady Retreat

Paper Garden Records.

SCQ Rating: 73%

Sleeper hits tend to forecast blockbusters. You know, how Alligator built steady steam over two years before the release of Boxer made the National stars, how Greetings From Michigan paved the way for Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise, etc. The list goes on and my sole theory behind this trend boils down to how success, however gradual or marginalized, brings out an artist's confidence. As such, blockbusters are often celebrated as being nervier or grandiose due to said album’s ability to focus on the artist's proven strengths as a songwriter, vocalist or arranger. On The Ground moved units and sounded like a sleeper hit; Damien DeRose's aching voice caressing a nerve still sensitive six years after Elliott Smith's death, yet the authenticity of his songs disarmed us of our cynacism.

With Shady Retreat, I admit I expected a blockbuster. Building from On The Ground's "you+me" focused songwriting and supplemented by the increasingly predictable context of an album created in backwoods isolation, Shady Retreat could've continued DeRose's songwriting growth while muscling up on his arrangements. Instead of letting his cabin-based locale motivate these songs toward a striving objective, they instead excuse Shady Retreat's power-outage minimalism. Clocking a mere twenty-eight minutes, Peasant's follow-up is a creaking folk record so direct, you might wish he'd at least meandered a bit. Even amid the record’s sloppier moments, as on the ho-hum waiting game of ‘Prescriptions’, DeRose's voice bridges any creative divide. Where would 'The Woods' be without that chorus of multi-tracked harmonies which provide his setting with much-needed shadows? How convincing would ‘Hard Times’ be without DeRose’s timbre bloodletting everywhere? His intuition as a vocalist may salvage much of this material but it doesn’t distract from how off-the-cuff Shady Retreat can feel. The final moments of ‘Slow Down’ spotlight a breakdown so half-hearted that I’d swear he tried to adlib the last lyrics. In effect, the song splinters into straws. In these seldom moments, DeRose sounds like he’s coasting… and when his album is under half an hour, seldom is too often.

All expectations aside, let the blockbuster be damned! By no means is this album a letdown because DeRose didn't give us a dramatic showstopper, although some signs of ambition would've been comforting. Had Peasant locked onto the ramshackle appeal of 'Slow Down' or 'Well Alright', Shady Retreat would've at least earned a well-rounded identity as a 70s songwriter record that enunciates classic Neil Young dissonance. Or had he stuck with the tried-and-true polish of On The Ground, which slicks sporadically over ‘Pry’ or the rollicking ‘Thinking’, he could've met some held-over expectations and maintained the status quo. At its best, Shady Retreat provides different angles into DeRose’s songbird genius, via the pillowed punch of ‘Tough’ or ‘The End’. Like any retreat, Peasant’s latest will satiate what heals you but ultimately feels a little malnourished.

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