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Tim Foljahn - Songs for an Age of Extinction

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Artist: Tim Foljahn

Album: Songs for an Age of Extinction

Label: Kiam

Review date: Mar. 6, 2012

Tim Foljahn’s voice was made for the dark hours — a hollowed out, worn down, shadow-smudged baritone that seems to speak always from the corner of the room that you can’t see very well. He takes his time with the words, leaving long spaces between his thoughts so that you have time to think about what he’s said or, if you prefer, to forget about it altogether and start afresh with each hallucinatory phrase. He has a way of stretching out content without diluting it, so that the pauses become part of the narrative, the silences integral to the songs. The effect is surreal, yet the lyrics are plain spoken with hardly a three-syllable word among them. Music, too, is pared to essentials. Here on Songs for an Age of Extinction, Foljahn accompanies these ruminations pretty much all by himself, framing them with minimal guitar, silvery electric piano or the wheeze of small town church organ.

Foljahn is part of the extended Sonic Youth family — a frequent collaborator with Steve Shelley, the original guitar player on Thurston Moore’s Psychic Hearts, a member, with Moore, of Male Slut. He was Cat Power’s first guitar player, too (through the first Matador album), and has played with Townes Van Zandt, Half Japanese and Boredoms. The primary outlet for his own songs, up to this point, has been Two Dollar Guitar (with Shelley and Dave Motamed), a slowed-down, quietly desolate excursion into minimal Americana.

Songs for an Age of Extinction is not so very different from Two Dollar Guitar, though perhaps a bit starker, without the grounding of bass and drums. The title cut, which opens the album, layers drone upon drone, in a sprawl of sitar-like sound. Its tones fluctuate in an organic, instinctual way that might be hard to accomplish in a band setting. Other guitar arrangements are more conventional; “War Song” follows a very Neil Young-like guitar lick over nightmarish territory, the interior monologue of a soldier who didn’t know what he was getting into.

The new twist is that several of the songs rely on keyboards rather than guitar to make their melodic mark. In “All Fall Away,” organ notes tremble and shiver against Foljahn’s weathered voice. The theme, here, as elsewhere, is mortality, nailed in blunt, everyday imagery — “a million fields of wheat beneath the thresher’s gate,” and “the shovel of dirt falls into the grave” — eloquently reinforced by the kind of organ heard in funeral parlors and tiny evangelical churches. Later, electric piano frames the gospel chords of “Faded,” anchoring a song that considers how love can last when memory doesn’t. These are not easy or light-hearted entertainments. Nearly every cut deals with aging, dying, ending and persistence in the face of loss.

Even so, there’s a resilience, even an uplift, that keeps these songs from being depressing. “All Fall Away” ends with an ascent by ladder, upwards, who knows where? “Faded” finishes in rueful self-acknowledgement and acceptance. Even “Songs for an Age of Extinctions” seems to locate a Zen-like calm in the midst of environmental disaster. Foljahn’s voice may crack in the sustained notes and waver in the high ones, but it nonetheless radiates a kind of certainty and reassurance. We’ll get through this, he seems to say.

That’s even true, in a way, of the final cut, a long echo-haunted dialogue between piano and drone that Foljahn calls “The Dust of Exploded Stars.” There are no words in this one, and only the barest trace of conventional melody. Still, the piece manages to convey the empty serenity of a world without people. Never afraid to look over the edge, Foljahn pushes past the end of everything and finds something beautiful in the howl and hiss of empty space.

By Jennifer Kelly

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