Scott Ryan – Tree Man EP

Scott Ryan - Tree Man EP

Scott Ryan - Tree Man EP

The vacillating serenity and chaos of Scott Ryan’s music doesn’t exactly encourage the types of bucolic visions you’d expect from a man who calls southern California his home.  The album art that accompanies his new Tree Man EP, with all its stark contrast between black and white, provides more than a hint that this is not just another collection of pop songs to be digested like one might do with a Danielle Steele novel on the beach.  It may go without saying that Ryan’s unsuspecting ability to launch into the occasional sonic freakout won’t do anything to conjure images of swaying palm trees or sun-kissed boardwalks; surprisingly though, neither does his judicious use of the acoustic guitar and bells.  Whether he’s armed with a full rock band or just a six-string and a broken heart, Ryan’s songs – teeming with tales of disaffection and defeat – are all densely layered works of art.

The album’s eponymously titled opening track happens to be one of Ryan’s most simultaneously unsettling and transcendent compositions.  Clocking in at more than five minutes in length, the song is a keen blend of strings, acoustic guitar, and mallet percussion that makes for a disarming listen.  Yet were it not for the ominous minor second harmonies that he peppers throughout, unsettling lyrics such as, “Turned away by people that he loved / children fear for his spirit / cursed from above,” might go unnoticed.  The song’s suspense and highly atmospheric lilt can’t be truly appreciated however, until the sound has completely faded away and the pounding drums of “Color Me In” arrive unannounced.  With its playful lyrics (“I don’t lose my head / I lose my temper instead), brisk tempo, and aggressive execution, the track is an obvious about-face from its predecessor.  Particularly enjoyable is the dominating presence of the drums in the song’s final minute.

The EP’s overarching theme of alienation is most pronounced at its center.  Sung with just a mild touch of campiness over simmering electric guitars and a vibraphone, the loneliness in “Vanishing” is fairly overt: “Won’t you take me down / nowhere else to go / won’t you hang around / or are we vanishing alone?”  There’s a fleeting sense of hopefulness in the out-of-left-field bridge, but the track still hangs heavy with pervasive tones of doubt and listlessness.

“Houndstooth Coat” arrives with its vitriol spewing, as Ryan sings, “Got a dead cricket outside my door / I won’t be hearing his song anymore.”  The tune is as close as Ryan gets to Jack White territory; it’s a sneering blues rock stomper with a devil-may-care attitude.  Oddly enough, it also employs electronic percussion and what sounds like a marimba.

Yet for all of the dark imagery and brooding textures heard up to this point, the EP ends on a pleasantly uplifting note with “Crow’s Feet.”  While the song features acoustic guitar work akin to the album’s opener, the chord voicings are more exotic this time around, resulting in a heightened sense of wonderment.  Though the tone of Ryan’s voice is a bit abrasive at times, the melismatic delivery of lines like, “shed a little light,” suggests that the thick fog might finally be lifting.  “Crow’s Feet” is a masterful example of tension and release, and the greatest sigh of relief comes at the song’s end with a blissful E major chord.

For all the strengths of Scott Ryan’s songwriting and his deft handling of disparate styles, what impresses most about Tree Man is how strikingly unique each track is despite the ordinary rock band instrumentation.  Though it is true that strings and mallet percussion make an appearance or two, the music’s spine is constructed around the sonic possibilities of the human voice, as well as guitar, bass, and drums.  In this regard, Ryan’s attention to textural variation is as noteworthy as the sequencing of the songs, which takes the listener on a roller coaster of emotions.  It’s truly a thrill, and I’m ready for the long player.