Chris Weisman & Greg Davis – Northern Songs

Chris Weisman & Greg Davis - Northern Songs

Chris Weisman is a relatively unknown songwriter from Brattleboro, Vermont, who has been recording his strange but catchy songs at home for years, and who plays in the band Happy Birthday, who got fast-tracked by Sub Pop who released their full-length debut of fun, buzzy pop songs earlier this year. Greg Davis, stationed upstate in Burlington, has been a looming presence on the experimental drone/improve scene since originating and surviving the first wave of laptop folk, and has released some of Weisman’s songs on his Autumn Records imprint. Davis has collaborated on more full-length releases than he has released as a solo act, so it comes as no surprise that he’s teaming up again. But after remarkable collaborative explorations with fellow outsiders Sebastian Roux, Keith Fullerton Whitman, Jeph Jerman, and Zach Wallace, what is surprising is how songy this collaboration with Weisman, Northern Songs, sounds. It’s the most songy thing Davis has been a part of (that I’m aware of, he releases often) since his 2003 solo album Curling Pond Woods.

Weisman’s cassette Fresh Sip, released on Davis’s label earlier this year, gives a good idea of what each of these guys brings to the table for this collaborative album. Weisman crafts bedroom pop songs for voice and guitar (and occasionally keyboard and drum machine), each one a tiny and self-contained world, and each a precious little novelty. Davis has produced a wide-ranging discography – covering folk, drone, electroacoustic improvisation, and field recordings, frequently all at the same time – and is the wild card here. On Northern Songs, he takes these weird, tiny songs Weisman has sent him to finish off with no instructions, and blasts them wide open.

An allegiance to George Harrison and the Beatles is palpable. The album’s title is a shout out to George’s song, “Only a Northern Song”, about his second rate status in the Beatles publishing arm Northern Songs, and the most rip-roaring, jubilant moment on the album is a cover of Harrison’s late-60’s psych rave-up “It’s All Too Much”. Even so, the spirit of Harrison is felt more than heard, as Weisman channels his late-period, dreamily detached persona with lyrics both imagistic and esoteric, dealing with the simple feelings of what it’s like to be alive and how to survive (“We won’t survive/And just this way, we get to be alive”). Weisman’s high register voice finds its way around a melody and harmony with ease, and his soft singing has a gentle touch that draws you intellectually in to his word worlds as well as emotionally inward to a place safe enough to drift among his dreamy and earthy non sequiturs.

Davis’s contributions really push the music in unexpected directions. First song “New Americans” is the most Davis-centered track on the album, and with its harsh squiggles slowly giving way to processed, wind-chime-sounding guitar and naturalistic clarion calls, it wouldn’t sound out of place on Pacquet Surprise. But then as you wait for Davis’s entry on the next track, the droopily acoustic “Crystalline”, you wonder if all he’ll be adding will be a light treatment of bells in the background, when finally the track morphs into a boisterous auto-wah guitar jam over the harmonized mantra “like mom and dad”. The otherwise reserved main section of “Hat of Night” is bisected by a left field measure of mid-Eastern cacophony, before playing out in a sing along devotional to the titular hat. “The Nine Times” has a submerged-sounding Weisman nearing a falsetto over the top of deeply blurred and echoed chords, before ending on the hypnotic repetition of those chords, this time clean and bright. The whole album is chock full of these wild juxtapositions, adding up to an enjoyably surreal journey.

The really lovely thing about Northern Songs is the way it inverts expectations by becoming more mysterious with each listen. Weisman’s strong vocal presence really sells it right off the bat as a singer-songwriter album, but Davis’s contributions rise to the foreground after the initial feeling of pop familiarity wears off. Davis could have predictably accompanied these tracks with some pleasant laptop debris in the background, and they would have remained charmingly idiosyncratic, atmospheric bedroom pop. Instead, he ignores their essence as small, well-organized chunks of meaning by dragging them into a world where sound boldly asserts itself as an emotional and meaningful thing in its own right, and in the process they become something powerful, unwieldy, and mystifyingly sublime.

Chris Weisman

Greg Davis

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