Certainly, there were bachelor seamen, and one should imagine that they were (and probably still are) in far greater abundance than the land-married variety. Even so, the idea of the Unwed Sailor implies a bachelor in both senses of the word: a sailor married neither to his spouse nor to the great and forbidding sea. A man truly apart, at home neither on land nor in his chosen profession and without either purpose in his trade or the desire to turn away from it. A man aimless, wantless, and imperturbable by wind or weather, for what purpose is there in discomfort? What fear is there of loss when nothing is held valuable? Hell, Zeno would most likely have considered that the true definition of stoic freedom: the Unwed Sailor as the epitome of dispassion and ambivalence.
Fittingly, there is a sense of dispassion and even ambivalence—rather, ambiguity—in the music of Seattle’s Unwed Sailor. Lead by bassist/composer Johnathan Ford, Unwed Sailor is best considered a post-rock chamber orchestra of rotating performers, the past and present roster of which has included Melissa Palladino, K.C. Wescott, David Bazan, Nic Tse, Matt Johnson, Daniel Burton, Joe Brumley, Matt Putman, James McAllister, Matt Depper, Tristan Putman, Adam Putman, Phillip Blackwell, Matt Griffin, Kevin Barrans, Brooks Tipton, Patrick Ryan, Andrew Haldeman, Ryan Lindsey, Chad Copelin, Aaron Ford, Stephen Tucker, Bryce Chambers, Matthew Magee, and Jeff Shoop. Theirs is “dispassion” in the sense of discipline, meaning that the music of Unwed Sailor is both meticulous and well-rehearsed. There is no sense of rock and roll frenzy, nor of thrashing about on stage or in the studio in a fit of improperly-channeled emotion. There are no impromptu solos, no adlibs, and little-to-no improvisation, only well-orchestrated segments designed to highlight an individual instrument’s part in the greater, cohesive theme.
Ambivalence, or ambiguity, is displayed in Unwed Sailor’s near-absolute abnegation of lyrics and the human voice as elements in their compositions. In the absence of words, Johnathan Ford & co. use music as a language in and off itself, employing subtle chord progressions, harmonies, and the growth and variation of a composition’s movements and motifs to elicit specific emotions without resorting to the (relatively) easy out of a narrator. Rather than dictating what a given song is about with the explicitness of lyrical storytelling, Unwed Sailor provides wiggle room for the fine details, a space where personal intuition and imagination work to fill in the blanks, essentially creating an auditory Rorschach Test whereby no two experiences of/with a song are exactly the same.
Granted, Unwed Sailor does rely on album-specific context to guide the listener in his or her interpretations. In some cases, the album packaging is integral to fully appreciating the songs contained therein. Contextual listening guides range from the minimalist to the marvelous: on one end, you have the eponymous poem of Unwed Sailor’s first full-length, The Faithful Anchor, a poem that doubles as the softly-sung lyrics to the album’s similarly-named ending track. On the other end, you have Unwed Sailor’s 2003 full-length, The Marionette and the Music Box, which was packaged as a children’s book about the size of a 7” single. Featuring original artwork by Jamie Hunt, each song on The Marionette and the Music Box is accompanied by an illustration which would, in concert with song titles as subtitles, more completely convey the album’s central fairytale. Imagine if Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” were adapted by Sergei Prokofiev in the style of Peter and the Wolf, only with a slideshow in the place of the narrator. That’s about right.
Throughout its ten years of performing, Unwed Sailor has striven to mate the visual and auditory arts with only the merest intrusion of language, written or spoken. Aside from studio albums and EPs, Johnathan Ford & co. have collaborated with photographer Chris Bennett and Indiana-based ambient collective Early Day Miners to write the soundtrack to the short film, Stateless. Similarly, Unwed Sailor has previously joined forces with the likes of The Album Leaf, Wilco keyboardist Mikael Jorgensen, singer-songwriter Jessica Bailiff, and Marc Bianchi (alias Her Space Holiday) to create music for a compilation centered on yet another Bennett film, For Jonathan. Not to mention the Unwed Sailor/Ester Drang/Lasso collaborative album, Circle of Birds.
My apologies for the lengthy biography, especially since that was little more than background information, a somewhat necessary primer to help you better understand my reaction to Unwed Sailor’s latest opus, Little Wars. Dropping but two years after the hand-in-hand release of The White Ox and Circles—two companion albums culled from the same recording sessions—Little Wars follows the trend of minimalist packaging and meager contextualization that Unwed Sailor has been employing in the wake of The Marionette and the Music Box. Not that I expected to be graced with another illustrated children’s book, or even the score to an independent film project, but as far as bells and whistles and extraneous, extra-album bonus features are concerned, the (relatively) plain Little Wars falls noticeably short.
For starters, the packaging for the CD release is little more than a miniature version of a four-panel LP sleeve decorated with oversaturated and out-of-focus floral shots, all vibrant greens and warm yellows and faded reds. The disc itself follows the staid monochromatics of Marionette and its followers—unremarkable majuscule serif text on a dark field, “UNWED SAILOR” set above, “LITTLE WARS” below. In this case, the palette is a faded yellow set on a deep brown with a hint of burgundy, the colour of prune juice or a black t-shirt that has spent too much time in the sun. The interior follows suit, its yellow serif track list and credits set against the same dark brown field. “Just the facts, ma’am,” as if to say, “You’re on your own with this one.”
It would seem almost normal if not for Unwed Sailor’s previous history of extra-musical gift-giving, of children’s books and film projects and poetry. Then again, groping for some special treat is similar to digging through a box of cereal for that bonus decoder ring or plastic racecar—it’s an unnecessary embellishment, a decorative sidebar to what should be the main focus: the cereal, the music, the core product behind the packaging.
In this sense, Little Wars is a refreshingly un-contextual album that is unafraid to stand, or even fall, on its own merit. It’s also one of the most upbeat albums that Unwed Sailor has yet released, with the front-and-center piano, brassy rhythms, and watery bass lines and ringing guitar riffs of opening track “Copper Islands” eschewing the plodding ambience of Circles and The White Ox in favour of a (somewhat El Ten Eleven-ish) percussive forcefulness. Combined with the start-stop drum splash and warbling bass of title track “Little Wars,” it’s almost a throwback to the energy of Unwed Sailor’s 1998 deubt EP, Firecracker, albeit tempered by the instrumental and electronic techniques that Ford & co. have picked up in years since. To whit: the guitars have adopted an Edge-like sustain and brightness to their chords and arpeggiations, and the drums have achieved a prominence not afforded them since the days when Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan was manning the skins.
As yet another nice departure from the mellow and maudlin somberness of Unwed Sailor’s most recent releases, Little Wars comes across as an album possessed with growth and natural beauty. Even while “The Garden” restricts itself to guitar, bass, and drums with light electronic accents, there is no doubt of the vernal energy that suffuses its rhythms and propels them forward, feeding into the vigorous, humming and droning daybreak of “Aurora.”
Fittingly, “Campanile” opens with a background of church bells, though this is soon overshadowed by stick-and-tom percussion, synth embellishments, a central bass melody, and a few shifting rhythms—in other words: classic Unwed Sailor, subdued yet compelling. “Echo Roads” affects an almost-Southern twang to its guitars, six-string chords and finger-picking that shimmer like sunlight, calling to mind dewy hillsides perfect for laying back and watching clouds pass by. The pleasant valley of the album, “Nauvoo” is the lazy afternoon of Little Wars, a quiet country drive with low-lying bass and synth playing off of reserved percussion and the soft, light squeak of fingers dragging on guitar strings in-between notes.
In a seeming nod to The Marionette and the Music Box, “Lonely Bulls” begins with a quiet lullaby, all droning lows and chiming highs, from which percussion, synth, guitar, piano and whatall constantly build and expand the song into a slow-moving prelude to album-ender “Numeral.” Predominantly synth and piano-based, “Numeral” is by far the most ambient track found on Little Wars. The song’s haunting backdrop and plodding bass line are a quiet send-off, a slow transition from music to noise to anticlimactic silence. Like a sunset obscured by a horizon of clouds, Little Wars does not finish, per se, it simply ends.*
Strong but for a comparatively bland finish and a general lack of context—which, oddly enough, can only be considered a complaint in the context of past endeavours—Unwed Sailor’s Little Wars is a compelling album that, despite its shortcomings, is a welcome addition to Johnathon Ford & co.’s catalogue of works. It’s ambiguous, true, and arguably dispassionate, but that seems to be par for the course.
*Notably, the 2xLP version of the album contains two bonus tracks, “Calliope” and a Southern Graze remix of “Lonely Bulls,” which may or may not provide a better sense of closure.
Audio Reviews (April 13th, 2008)
Tags: reviews, audio, unwed sailor, little wars, burnt toast vinyl