Chris Letcher – Harmonium EP

Chris Letcher
Harmonium EP

Chris Letcher burst onto the indie scene just last year with Frieze, a debut that had critics gushing over its blend of sophisticated wordplay, vast emotional scope, and dreamy soundscapes. Not that these ovations were undeserved: Letcher had succeeded in producing an album whose dense textures, bolstered by a childhood spent in South Africa, seemed to fuse the divergent worlds of afro-beat and western indie pop. Marked by its intricate arrangements and scholarly songcraft, Letcher seemed poised for global dominance. His latest offering, Harmonium, finds the man and his band in transition mode, nostalgically holding onto the past while fans await the next burst of creativity.

The title track is one of the few instances where we find Letcher in an original and captivating mode of composition. With conservatory-level training to bolster his inherent talent, Letcher and his band set up a rhythmic hemiola that, despite its pop sensibilities, still sounds as though it could be used as soundtrack material for the next Discovery Channel documentary on the lives of nocturnal insects. Chiming piano, unsettled strings, and skittering auxiliary percussion flirt with one another underneath Letcher’s gauzy vocals. Propelling the song forward is Letcher’s piano playing, merging simplistic block chord harmony and minimalist rhythmic pulsations to coax the song to its emotional climax, a cacophonous purging of drums, guitar, and horns that barely lasts twenty seconds.

Letcher might’ve grown up closer to the Serengeti than a lot of his contemporaries, but don’t think you’re going to get a Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon survey of African music with this EP. If someone tags these compositions as world music, you might as well do the same with fellow South Africa native Dave Matthews (a man with whom, ironically, Letcher has collaborated). It’s clear that he may have once called Africa home, but Chris Letcher is knocking on America’s door. You can’t blame him: lamellophone solos aren’t exactly going to move massive numbers of records on this side of the Atlantic, but a catchy sing-a-long chorus or two will. Such is the case with a track like “Architect,” which is sprinkled with unorthodox textures and yet still comes off as standard alt-rock fare. A backing band armed with glockenspiel, Coke bottles, baritone saxophone, and viola is all well and good, but on a song like “Scenes,” these eccentricities are no match for the chugga chugga rhythm of a palm muted electric guitar.

Not that Letcher left his homeland behind entirely. Most of the African influence to be found here is on tracks like “I Was Awake” and “Parker” where we find the band continuing to cross-pollinate their grooves with simultaneous duple and triple rhythms. But as Letcher told The South African in an interview, these complexities don’t need to be internalized for an enjoyable listen. And he’s right. “Parker” gives the listener plenty of ear candy, much in the same way “Harmonium” did earlier on the album. Over some obligatory hand claps and a beautifully bowed saw, Letcher does his best Carl Newman (New Pornographers) vocal imitation, singing about how “the weather’s unrelentingly grim” and dropping Spiderman references while the woodwinds and strings add a little harmonic muscle to the chorus.

Certainly, the three completely original songs on Harmonium are evidence that Chris Letcher is a burgeoning young songwriter, capable of cooking up some exciting ideas in the genre of reflective indie pop. Involved enough to satisfy even the most discerning audiophiles while still remaining accessible to the mainstream, Chris Letcher seems to have honed a sound that has indie quirkiness and a Top 40 sheen in equal measure. But like so many appetizer-sized offerings meant to bide time and appease fans before the next major release, Harmonium functions more as an epilogue from the last chapter of Letcher’s story than as a preview for the next exciting installment.