Justin Vellucci – Life Span of the Moth

Justin Vellucci - Life Span of the Moth

Pigeonholing an album like Life Span of the Moth doesn’t come easily.  Assembled from scraps of looped percussion samples, spoken word meditations, bedroom folk, and post-rock atmospheres, this tenth album from San Diego-by-way-of-Pittsburgh songwriter Justin Vellucci conspires to fuse the brittle introspections of Bill Callahan or Leonard Cohen with the gnarled instrumentals of Sonic Youth or Slint.  It’s an enticing blueprint for a record that seeks to blur the lines of categorical boundaries and compartmentalization, but unfortunately, these good intentions fail to coalesce into something greater than the sum of its parts.

A musician who also doubles as a writer (Vellucci logged time as a writer for both the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and the music zine that published this very review), Vellucci displays an obvious flair with the pen on Life Span of the Moth.  Many of his lyrics read like poetry, as evidenced by vivid one-liners like “Legs are full of bourbon / head is full of clouds” from the hypnotic “Under a Faceless Moon” and “Eyes merged into silences / waiting to explain / the hostility / the hypocrisy,” heard amidst the rambling and desperate strains of “Silences.”

At its core though, the album exudes a palpably austere tone, at times perhaps even a formidable nominee for soundtracking your Halloween party.  Vellucci refers to it as “broken music for broken ears,” but with so much craggy percussion and disconsolate guitar work abounding on the album, lines like “The endoscopy will find nothing / the colonoscopy / the same” achieve a specific kind of moribund curiosity.  Despondent outlook notwithstanding, no one can argue that Vellucci is at a loss for captivating ideas.  From the surf-rock vagaries of “Another Drop of Blood in the Piranha Pool” and piano balladry of “Everything Was Good Once” to the meandering shoegazey fuzz of “Crawling Toward Jerusalem,” there is seldom a zeitgeist that isn’t boldly followed.

Yet for all of its industrious motives, Life Span of the Moth is a nonetheless tenuous record – an ultimately opaque affair that renounces most instances of melody and groove for unsettling atmospheres and textures.  Vellucci’s voice is certainly capable of transcending mere singsong, but often he does just that, enunciating in a wispy and faltering tenor that recalls Dan Bejar’s timbre with Lou Reed’s inflection.  On “Excerpt from a Samizdat on Trephination,” plodding percussion and muted midtempo guitar encourage the vocal lethargy to the point that Vellucci comes off as androgynous, not unlike Placebo’s Brian Molko.  “WWHLD? (What Would Harry Lime Do?)” seeks to go in the direction of a traditional blues jam with a bass line that could’ve been copped from Peter Gunn, but the heaps of diminished guitar chords, recycled percussion, and ominous lyrics (“You begin to wonder whose blood is on your hands and shirt”) are more confounding than they are conspicuous.

It’s may not be far-fetched to make some connections between Justin Vellucci’s fractured folk post-rock and the brooding songwriter aesthetics of Baltimore’s Cass McCombs, whose recent Wit’s End LP showcases stark introspection at its finest.  In truth, the stormy emotional terrain and plaintive settings frequented by McCombs might just be the best example of a contemporary who works with a stylistic palette similar to that of Vellucci.  Both of them excel at melancholia, but with McCombs, the doleful milieu sticks longer because of a clearer emotional arc and melodic intuition.  Life Span of the Moth has an equally talented creator in Vellucci and a wonderfully inventive game plan that’s worth exploring, but the execution and end product are tragically haphazard.