Brian Michael Roff – A Sweet Science

Brian Michael Roff
A Sweet Science

“Science is just our modern myth,” said my normally dogmatically logical friend, going on to explain how the hallmarks of empiricism and the scientific method have only replaced our old way of intuitively approaching the world, not arriving at anything closer to the truth in the process. “Science has just replaced religion. It’s the same monolith that the church was for years. Now science decides what we should believe.” And as surprising as it sounded coming out of his mouth, I agreed. As much as science has benefited our lives – making its intangibles spin faster and more efficiently – it does seem to waste an awful lot of its effort justifying its existence and is largely powerless to explain anything that truly means anything. Music has never been particularly beholden to science, as something so abstract and innate can’t help but grasp out to the unknowable and unseen. And if science can be blamed for being cold and impersonal in its ongoing process to reduce life to a formula, Brian Michael Roff would apparently like to make it a little sweeter.
In general, it seems that having music and science cross is rarely a good thing, as it can mean anything from mass-marketed, demographic conscious tripe to formulaic genre studies or some of the more theoretically-minded variants of experimental music. And while Roff generally plays it pretty safe on A Sweet Science, wading in the median depth section of lushly atmospheric end of the indie singer-songwriter pool, his music is generally free of calculation and breathes with a surprising amount of soulfulness. Such is the case with the opening “Do Not Own It,” a slowly building slab of indie soul with Roff wringing as much emotion as possible out of his soft, slightly nasal voice. Most of the set, though, is of a more lushly depressed school of songwriting, with the cavernously wistful lament “A Trackless Trolley” sighing over a contemplative viola and the lazily plaintive strums of “Testing” saddled with regret and steeped in non-threatening pastoral dynamics. All in all, it’s a moody, meticulous mix that is mirrored by a narrative style that spares little detail.
“This is your 22nd birthday, it wasn’t quite like you imagined,” he sings pensively in “Automatic Action” over soft electric guitar and muffled percussion. “You change your whole look with a haircut and comb it back in aggravation,” he continues, ending with the recitation of “This is the worst vacation ever.” Somewhat vague as a lyricist, he often relies on his arrangements to imply the narrative weight, and is generally quite successful in doing so. Much in the same way that Vic Chesnutt can coax an amazingly austere ethic out of largely low-key instrumentation, Roff is also successful when opting for the shelter of tougher, more muscular electric guitars, like those of “Bench Street Blues,” and with the burned out country balladry of the loping “Magazine Memories,” with banjo and viola planting themselves in a patch of backwoods dirt. Assuming a set of drawling affections over the murky banjo and harmonica to bring to life a broken down character on the horns of an existential crisis in “Under My Belt,” sounding a knowingly foreboding note a la Will Oldham or Tonight’s the Night-era Neil Young, with his antagonist seemingly trying to crawl away before the hand of fate rubs him into the mud. The oddly contradictory electronic beats that counter the plaintive acoustic strumming of “Thistle Occupation Blues,” where Roff is heard to offer the odd rejoinder “here is where the facts don’t care,” purges the plaintive soul of the disc with an explosion of rolling drums, soaring vocals, and the apparent convergence of every instrument that had previously made an appearance all congregating to take the album out on a high note.
All that is not to say that Roff wields an altogether unique ideology as practitioner of A Sweet Science. In fact, he’s largely toiling in a field of study where artists like T.W. Walsh (who contributes drums and keyboards) and Pedro the Lion already have set up camp. But what Roff may lack in outright ingenuity he makes up with consistent and interesting songcraft. That said, Roff, although ubiquitous in the album’s presentation, fails to emerge as a distinct entity in the album, his personality only vaguely realized and his artistic intentions remaining largely veiled. All in all, it’s not science, but it’s precise just the same.