Owen Tromans – Box of Tapes

Owen Tromans
Box of Tapes

I can’t deny it. I’m a total anglophile. Ever since watching A Hard Day’s Night when I was 13 years old, my inner voice has had a British accent and I’ve spent my days walking around phrasing questions as if having an imaginary conversation with John Lennon. England is a wonderful place to visit, too. Almost like a fairy tale, with a Queen and a palace and more ornate churches than you can shake a royal scepter at, it seems that most anywhere you go you’re only a stone’s throw away from a place where something historically significant happened. Of course, adding to that mystique is the fact that such a small geographic location continually produces the greatest innovators in popular music. Rock hadn’t been around a decade before they were already firing their own versions of it back across the ocean at us as a mass British Invasion.
Ever since, with the combined influence of Led Zeppelin, the Sex Pistols, and Radiohead, they’ve largely set the temper for American rock. Still, the British haven’t been terribly active on the non-electronic post-rock front, which made it all the more refreshing to hear Owen Tromans and his band San Lorenzo rip through a set of guitar-heavy post-rock on Nothing New Ever Works that seemed somewhat untouched by the cumulative history of British pop. More Fugazi or Modest Mouse than Oasis or Gang of Four, San Lorenzo changed styles like Henry VIII changed wives, from screeching feedback to pensive acoustics and extended instrumentals. Not an unwelcome diversion, mind you, but surprising just the same.
With San Lorenzo either having split or gone on extended hiatus, Tromans has deemed the time appropriate to release a set of solo tracks recorded between 1997 and 2000 on his own personal four-track. As such, the set is best seen as a set of disparate aural snapshots over a four-year period, showing Tromans wearing just as many hats as he had with his former bandmates – one minute a serene singer-songwriter, the next a experimental sound sculptor, but always anchored in a strongly emotive indie rock aesthetic.
Though his recordings with San Lorenzo occasionally dipped into the more sincerely stripped-down fare, Tromans showcases a more developed version of that side of his artistry on Box of Tapes. No better example than the opening “Firework Party,” with pristinely picked acoustic guitar caressed by elegant flute and electric guitar lines, Tromans expertly combines the understated elements to give voice to a quiet intensity that transcends the deceivingly complex nature of the arrangement. Finding more beauty in despondency, the incredibly pretty “Halloween” delivers laments from a narrator who “got drunk and said something I wish I’d kept in my head” over strums of a plaintive acoustic guitar. On these tracks, as throughout, Tromans is found to have a very appealing voice, somewhat reminiscent of Billy Bragg, as he wraps warm organ and piano in soulful electric guitar leads in more straightforward singer-songwriter fare like “All My Blood.”
Closer to Nick Drake than folk troubadour Martin Carthy, Tromans, nonetheless, finds the somewhat darkly mythical feel of British folk in the heartbreakingly gorgeous “X-Affliction,” unwinding a dark narrative over stark acoustic and electric guitars. Still, Tromans doesn’t neglect to indulge his more obscure side with the shuttering noise of “My Brother” and the faux-phone harassment of “Something Breaks,” with breathy distorted whispering over a ringing guitar drone making for a track that would give you nightmares should you find it on the other end of the receiver at 3 a.m. Returning to a happy medium, the churning hypnotic guitar intro of “This Water is Milk” eventually gives way to subdued tones and multiple vocal lines cryptically boasting “I drink it down / The powder of dead man’s bones.” Adding extra shades to his palette, Tromans even dips into dark electronica, bouncing translucent blue tones of scary soundscapes in “Getting Home Through the Snow.”
In short, Tromans doesn’t seem to be the typical British rocker. Of course, he isn’t the typical American rocker, either. He spreads his net wide and captures a lot of sounds and ideas that lesser artists never find and taps into an intensity that if it weren’t so believable would become a distraction. Whether or not he’ll continue to pursue material that could be vaguely termed post-rock is uncertain, but seeing that the genre is somewhat lagging currently, it would be nice to have a fresh injection from our brothers across the sea.