Big Sir – Before Gardens After Gardens

Big Sir - Before Gardens After Gardens

A singer/songwriter whose résumé accolades include collaborations with the likes of M83 and Air meets the bass player from the Mars Volta in 1990s Los Angeles and forms the most unlikely of musical alliances.  What does it sound like, you might wonder?  Lisa Papineau’s voice possesses an Imogen Heap-meets-Bat for Lashes resplendence – dreamy, and in perfect lockstep with the gleaming electronic textures of her confreres.  Juan Alderete is a remarkably facile bassist who cut his teeth playing virtuosic metal in Racer X and acerbic prog-rock as part of the burgeoning Rodriguez-Lopez family.  The results of this unsuspecting union – named Big Sir – are a sublime fusion of ethereal electronica and jittery jazz-rock.  The bigger question that needs answering here, I think, is how these two have been able to remain under the radar for more than a decade on active duty.

Big Sir’s third LP, Before Gardens After Gardens, dials down the extremes of each contributor’s day job; gone are the balmy digital atmospheres and the grinding skronk found elsewhere in these artists’ back catalogs.  This isn’t to suggest that Big Sir is merely the lukewarm progeny of something more zealous.  While Papineau and Alderete obviously bring their respective strengths to the table, there’s also a sense of musical deference here that pays handsome dividends.  It’s the sort of cogency to be had when you humble yourself and absorb the masterstrokes of another into your own craft.

Truthfully though, it takes a few tracks for the magic to become palpable.  “Regions,” “Ready on the Line,” and “Infidels” are perfectly executed songs, but sequenced in tandem they take on a Postal Service-esque hypnosis, with anxiously thumping electronic percussion and gossamer vocals that split the difference between swaggering and unsettling.  Ostensibly about the grappling we all do with our own mortality, the album’s opening trilogy also issues death a name and seeks to find peace in its inevitability: “Oh the calico / take me there / to the end of the line.”  While looped percussion samples and angular synth rhythms invite some heightened moments, Papineau’s pacifying cadences often translate into muted emotions.  Ignore the vocals entirely, and these tunes wouldn’t be out of place as the soundtrack for some high-end fashion boutique or hipster cocktail lounge.

The remainder of Before Gardens After Gardens finds Papineau and Alderete taking greater risks and exploring a wider sonic palette.  “Right Action” is as restless if not more so than its predecessors, but this time around Alderete’s nimble bass work and frenetic synthesizer tones are juxtaposed by Papineau’s melismatic yet ardent vocal performance.  “The Ladder” is all but devoid of the electronic thrum to which we had grown accustomed, replaced instead by harp arpeggiations and the samples of what might be orchestral harmonies.  What’s present is lushly arranged, but there’s still enough room in the mix for Alderete’s fretless bass licks to occasionally step up to the fore.  “The Kindest Hour” is a gorgeous amalgamation of Björk-like vocals (“In the kindest hour / quietness is all around me / I can hear you laughing / on the way over”), scantly decorated drumming, and viola melodies that trot the line between tuneful and abrasive.

Enterprising to the last, the album’s final third is perhaps its most multifarious.  “Old Blood” comes off like the work of a legitimate rock band; tinny guitar timbres and Alderete’s gritty low-end punch belie the somnolence of Papineau’s singing.  The group’s most overt attempt at balladry, “Born with a Tear” is a piano-led bit of melancholia, rife with Reagan-era keyboards and lovelorn lyrics (“You say the words / to make it OK / you say the words / I thought you’d never say”).  “Be Brave Go On” fuses an off-kilter 9/4 time signature with funky bass lines and accordion harmonies.  Though brief, it’s a deft example of Big Sir’s dexterity with the disparaging worlds of prog, jazz, and electronic music.

While credit is due to Big Sir for explicating their songwriting with a bevy of collaborators, (Mars Volta singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Broken Bells bassist Jonathan Hischke makes appearances, among others), the biggest nod goes to Alderete and Papineau for actualizing something that, while not inconceivable, reads like a maladroit proposal on paper.  Before Gardens After Gardens does get off to a slow start, but the satisfaction to be had at the finish makes it worth the journey.  As Hunter S. Thompson often remarked: “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”