Stephen Steinbrink: Arranged Waves – album review
Stephen Steinbrink ‘Arranged Waves’ (Holy Page)
8.5 / 10
I once had a very pleasant conversation with Stephen Steinbrink about ribbon microphones while he was mending a pair of pants on my back porch during the middle of his national tour with Emperor X. He was deeply engaged in the conversation, describing his preferred methodology for mic’ing instruments while also intently focused on mending a pair of pants. Steinbrink thinks about a lot of things- often simultaneously, and his deconstructed, and always interesting thought processes put to words are at the heart of his latest release, Arranged Waves.
Over the past three years, Steinbrink has written, recorded, and released six full-length albums. In 2012, he released the brilliant ‘I Drew A Picture’, toured the United States, and in early 2013 extended the tour to Europe. At the same time he continued to write new material, and transplanted himself from Phoenix, Arizona to Olympia, Washington – where ‘Arranged Waves’ was recorded.
Steinbrink is a giant of a man that sings in a near soprano. He sings softly, in a metre and style that adds a layer of additional complexity to the music. The lyrics are intensely personal and the arrangements are thoughtfully woven from acoustic guitars, cello, keyboards, percussion, and short bursts of electric guitar. The opening track, And Now You See Everything, can be taken symbolically and literally. While the lyrics describe a level of insecurity, the cruelty of honest thoughts, and the vulnerability brought by exposing these thoughts- the music does show us everything. The full band pulls out the stops and a song about an overly sensitive person plays as great pop. Stephen Steinbrink is not a shrinking violet DIY folk singer- he brings a level of punk sensibility to his material through brutal honesty using carefully chosen words and beautiful melodies. The musicianship is a unique blend of folk, ambient, rock- but not tied to any one genre long enough to be type-cast.
Musically, Arranged Waves is both similar and dissimilar to Steinbrink’s previous work. A Simple Armature of Your Ideal World could have been easily at home on I Drew A Picture. But this time out, the arrangements are more tightly woven, and very artfully constructed from overlapping melodies. Steinbrink is constantly pushing and challenging himself musically- and he has a very deep well to draw from, On Arranged Waves, additional sonics were provided by some very distinguished friends that included Eli Moore (bass), Ashely Erikson (drums/vocals/slide guitar), Jen Grady (cello), Andrew Dorsett (percussion/keyboards), and Tom Filardo (guitar). The introduction of new musicians into his DIY process added a new flavour to Arranged Waves- and showcase Steinbrink’s ability to keep raising the bar and expanding his range.
There is a very distinctive southwestern groove used on songs like Sand Mandalas, an artifact of his life growing up in the desert southwest. Other songs push the envelope and go places that he has never visited before. Synesthetic Ephemera pairs a simple piano melody drone with an overdriven slide guitar- while the vocals carry the melody with a lines like “Leaves are dead. In my mind the full contour lies” and “I see what I can’t see.” Arranged Waves is the soundtrack to a person creating a brand new life and learning to live in a brand new world. Not connected, but not disconnected either
Stephen Steinbrink’s previous album, I Drew A Picture, was partially a concept album with more than a few songs describing the decline of Phoenix, Arizona, following the total (and inevitable) depletion of water. They are pretty songs about horrific things in an imagined future. On Arranged Waves, Steinbrink’s applies the same analytical formula, only this time out focusing on how thoughts, perceptions, and memories are constructed. It’s a very internal world- but a very real one. This is a collection of very pretty songs about a not-always welcoming imagined reality. Yes, it is a bit of a mindfuck. The lyrics are non-linear, and the words are carefully and beautifully chosen, very much in the Colin Newman/Graham Lewis tradition. It’s So Pretty (What You Did For Me) is a good example of Steinbrink’s narrative form: “I’m afraid I’ll meet infinity. The sugar cube, the laced veneer. Float above this tiny city. I see a house. I see a bird.” A simple looping organ progression, sampled drums, and a two step bass/guitar riff create a dreamy/trippy beat and the vocal melody carries the day, closing on the line, “Burn every molecule inside of me. It’s so pretty what you did for me.”
Tangerine starts as a field recording from the street, with the sound of bells echoing in the distance, bouncing off buildings. Steinbrink creates a soundscape of layered keyboards and reverse guitar/keyboards over the top that provides a very Eno-esque interlude- and also presents us another break from form. The closing song, Arranged Waves is a guitar/ambient piece that resolves the album in a peaceful dream state and the tolling bells from Tangerine loop back as the door closes. These are two very precious pieces where words simply cannot tell the story.
While there are many experimental aspects to Arranged Waves, Steinbrink also crafts some extremely clever and beautiful alt-pop songs. He knows how to build beats, weave harmonies, and write a catchy tune. Songs like Now You See Everything, Animate Dust, Trust, I Don’t Know How To Deal With It, Sand Mandalas, and It’s So Pretty (What You Did For Me) provide serious, and rewarding pleasure through Steinbrink’s melodies and musicianship. The contributions from his collaborators add all of the right touches at all the right moments. Steinbrink uses a unique fingerstyle technique on his battered guitar, as well as alternate tunings proving that his musicianship is as innovative as his songwriting.
Arranged Waves is a beautiful sounding album. The sonics are trippy and subdued, but there is a lot of complexity and edginess in the arrangements- even when you might think the arrangement is minimal. The engineering and song structures range from lo-fi to high fidelity and are reminiscent of Wrightoid, No Middle Name, Meat Puppets, Damien Jurado, and John Vanderslice. Steinbrink is a masterful engineer and songwriter, and these two activities form equal parts of his songwriting process. He can do quiet intensity- made possible by his voice, abstract (yet heartfelt) lyrics, innovative arrangements, and top-notch performance- delivered with complete and authentic sincerity. Arranged Waves is a great introduction to the music of Stephen Steinbrink- and it is quickly becoming one of my favourite albums of the year.
He’s also pretty good at sewing.