The chimes, guitar-turned-sitar via drone box, and warbling, country voice, together manage to conjure the smokey smell of incense, which effectively creates an altogether misleading idea of what you should expect from On the Stairs’ first full length album, Beyond A Shadow Of A Doubt. This strange opening track, “Already Won,” is an airy daze of semi-mystical, pseudo-eastern sound that doesn’t reemerge in any of the subsequent tracks. The last fourth of the song morphs into an equally odd, heavy southern country plod, undershot with hints of gospel. Although “Already Won” won’t initially win you over, and seems better suited for the later half of the album as opposed to the start where their sound is still being established, it does grow more enjoyable with each listen.
Despite this strange introduction, the common thread in Beyond A Shadow Of A Doubt is soon established: a slow drawlin’, Johnny Cash-esque baritone, and a country-gospel motif rests at the heart (“No Trumpets” is a nice example). On The Stairs’ track order is interesting, because the tracks always seem to oscillate on either side of the country: while one song will stick closely to that construction, the next will swing into soft rock, and the following will again be at that median, while the next goes somewhere else entirely. Surprisingly, that structure works well. Nate Clark has his fellow Portland musicians flirt with different genres and sounds, instead of relying on the familiar or comfortable. The second track, “Two Hands of a Fool,” steps away from the trance-like Eastern veil of the first, instead switching to a relatively more mainstream noise that still showcases their minimal side (“Chosen” demonstrates this too), playing with the spaces in ways that compliment the uncomplicated vocals and guitar. While more predictably composed, it’s still a solidly enjoyable track.
One of the best songs on the album is definitely “When the Dust Comes Down.” Here Clark creates an inescapable atmosphere, regardless of whether you’re driving down the highway or sitting in a cafe, perfectly described by the title itself. Faster-paced guitars and drums opens and the baritone vocalist tells, “when he was a child / his love was simple, it walked the miles / but now, it’s a furious thing / he don’t owe anybody anything.” This anger and hurt, found more in the lyrics than his voice, again crops up in “The Black Monk,” with the strong and poetic line, “There are days in this life when God’s blessed knife cuts to ribbons the things you hold dear.”
Another one of the album’s highlights, “Isn’t it Funny?” is surprisingly upbeat, lighthearted, and bopping, with feel-good harmonies and catchy trumpets. Where the other songs are decidedly more serious, this strays from the expected with a unfettered, tongue-in-cheek sound. The ironic part is that lyrics possess the same dark mood as before, as he almost sweetly sings, “Out reached a hand bringing a fool to his knees / stitches relented, old wounds merrily bleed.” The track that follows is slower, with an ebb and flow of ominous violins and distant drumming that gives “King” a melancholic sound, while the seventh track, “Heaven” (anyone else think of the Camden family?) goes back to slow drawlin’ country-gospel. “Sing It Off Stage” starts with the sound of a crowd milling about and turns into a very catchy, soft indie-folk sound. The final track, “West,” weirdly brings the album around full-circle, because it’s a just as strange as the opening song.
With Johnny Cash-esque vocals and country roots at the heart of most of their songs, the members of On The Stairs don’t hide behind the familiar, but instead branch out into different styles with each track. This willingness to experiment with different styles is part of the whole reason Beyond A Shadow Of A Doubt is such an interesting album.