Michael Garfield's Love Without End Tour Newsletter: Album Review: Lynx's Grain of Sand

18 January 2008

Album Review: Lynx's Grain of Sand

My first album review is for a friend, Boulder golden child and multi-talented sweetheart Caitlin DeMuth, aka Lynx. At twenty two, Lynx demonstrates a savvy that is utterly beyond my understanding - she stands at the nexus of the suave and endearingly dorky, the clever and the sincere, and has a fireball career to show for it. She's a minor legend in the Western States - a status she earned through numerous choice guest appearances with acts such as Zilla, Matisyahu, Kid Beyond, and The String Cheese Incident. With her new debut independent album, Grain of Sand, she seems ready to meet a new cohort of admirers with her characteristic cool, warmth, authenticity, and wit.

For those of you unfamiliar with Lynx, Grain of Sand might seem a bit weird: it's simultaneously slack and precise, humble and innovative. Her invented genre, "folktronica," seems to capture this specific fondness for holding opposing perspectives. Many of these songs might be standard girl-on-guitar fare, until she breaks into slam poetry and beatboxing, or until her skillful producers (Live PA heads G.S.P.) screw in some haunting synthesizers or fragments of glitchy percussion, embedding her café numbers into something suddenly danceable.

This slight twist is enough to warrant a closer listening - and for someone like me who usually doesn't get around to the words until the second or third spin, this is a blessing, because her lyrics are often subtle, intelligent, and inspiring. Grain of Sand is full of tricky little bits, delivered with trained cadence: "Above us and below us there is only sky," "Half full and she's nearly empty," "There's no such thing as forbidden anything," "It never has been us versus them."

She coopts "Generation Yes" from the Christian ministries to describe a "Movement Underground" that is "bigger than the scene," and reminds us that if you want to see a better world, you can't sit around dreaming but "gotta get your hands dirty, gotta dig for your purpose." Elsewhere, she muses favorably on causing "a riot - or better yet, change" - making a distinction that betrays her post-adolescent, post-summer-of-love sensibility (rare among those so similarly idealistic). And to my glee, she drops a mention of the constellation Pleiades - the "Seven Sisters," a celestial homebase for various watery myths of hens, maids, and aquatic aliens - into her song "Waters Rising."

The music itself is simple but solid. Her precise, choirgirl beatboxing hovers in just the right vocal range for the DJ noises she emulates, and her alternately thick-tongued and airy intonation is fabulously endearing. She raps a lot harder than she sings, and the occasional abrupt change of pace from wispy verse to outspoken bridge took me some getting used to. But one look at artist sAne's cover art for this album and it makes more sense.

His portrait is stargazing and wistful, rendered in earthtones with an urban sensibility, the right colors but a slightly strange shape, wreathed in viney and elaborate scrawls. It's all a part of her high-contrast musical persona.

G.S.P., as well as Zilla's hammer dulcimer wizard Jamie Janover, do a bang-up job of carrying her into a fuller realization of this paradox. The result sometimes verges on being too hip for its own good, when something slightly less beat-clocked would've driven her authentic and organic message deeper. But it's all made okay with moments like the jam at 2:40 in "Change," when some kind of woodblock/hammer dulcimer/acoustic guitar groove pops in and summons something eerily similar to badass live-looping cellist Eugene Friesen.

Later on, nice jazzy keys, easygoing strings, and luxurious backbeats sprawl "Tangerine" out in its chair, closing the album on a more timeless and traveled sound. And the fingerpicked intro to "Thicker Than Mud" betrays well-developed chops that are teasingly absent in the rest of the album's straightforward backbeat strumming. If Lynx-in-person is anything like Lynx-in-music, it's clear to me that she's playing below her ability - that she'll eventually pass through the low-flying clouds of the slick hip-hop front and into a rich vintage, where the true fire I know she possesses is evident in every song.

To be even-handed, I have to admit that the effortless grace in both her intimacy and bravado doesn't always hold. Her writing occasionally descends into self-conscious song-within-a-song confessionals ("I'm writing on the back of someone's junk mail"). Sometimes the lyrics don't even make sense: When she says that "Tangerine is the color of the moon tonight / It's been raining for at least five days," I have to wonder if this is even possible (an orange moon is caused by atmospheric dust, and rain would pin all of that to the ground).

At the end of my first spin, I was left wishing she would be a little more adventurous with key and tempo. Given how easy it would be to remix any of these tracks with any other, I had to wonder about what guided her decision to place the songs on this album in any particular order. It doesn't seem to carry the listener in any given direction or with a specific intent, but just floats around. Ultimately that might be what this album is best for - relaxing background music - which is kind of a shame, considering that so many of her lyrics deserve more attention than that.

(After listening to it a second time, however, I have to make a disclaimer. The first time I had it playing on the reprehensible speaker system of my car. Later, in a café with headphones, this record makes perfect sense. So many more of G.S.P.'s soft blips and scritches come through in my studio monitor headphones. The synthesizers' lower frequencies kick drum add a dose of much-needed heft, and the sudden appearance of a kick drum suggests real potential for delicious noise complaints.)

Anyway, I am frequently in the mood that suits this album, and expect it to receive regular play on my computer when I'm not too hip on whatever the baristas are playing. Like I said, there's a yearning voice in me for Lynx's music to roar as loud as her message, something that revolts against the thought that some of the most moving and urgent words I've ever read (like the "Miracles" rant that climaxes "Half Full") might got lost in the chill:

Lynx - Half Full

"Miracles are the impossible coming through and everything is possible
This is for the possibility that guides us
and for the possibilities still waiting to sing and spread their wings inside us
cuz tonight, Saturn is on his knees proposing with all of his ten thousand rings
that whatever song we've been singing, we sing even more
The world needs us right now more than it ever has before
Pull all your strings, play every chord
If you're writing letters to the prisoners, start tearing down the bars
If you're handing out flashlights in the dark, start handing out stars
Never go a second hushing the percussion of your heart
Play loud
Play like you know the clouds have left too many people cold and broken
and you're they're last chance for sun
Play like there's no time for hoping brighter days will come
Play like the apocalypse is only four, three, two...
You have a drum in your chest that could save us
You have a song like a breath that could raise us
like the sunrise into a dark sky that cries to be blue
Play like you know we won't survive if you don't, but we will if you do
Play like Saturn is on his knees proposing with all of his ten thousand rings
that we give every single breath
Y'all, this is for saying yes
This is for saying yes"

It's a tough line to swallow when the rest of the album is so subdued. But all things considered (first album, twenty two, produced by friends), Grain of Sand is a pretty astounding statement. I think she'll figure it out.

(Written for iggli.com.)