Graded on a Curve:
Holy Sons,
The Fact Facer

Emil Amos is a productive fellow. Figuring in various bands, the multi-instrumentalist’s most enduring artistic outlet is the solo songwriting venture Holy Sons, though only a portion of his reportedly 1,000 tunes have been offered for public consumption. 11 of them can be found on The Fact Facer, the project’s latest and Amos’ first for the Thrill Jockey label.

I’ll admit that upon first glance, the cover of Holy Sons’ new one, a discomfiting and precise rendering of a well-dressed hanged man framed inside a larger noose, inspired thoughts of the frequently lurid and seedy Italian genre cinema called Giallo. In fact, if perusing through the bins without prior knowledge of the numerous activities of Holy Sons founder Emil Amos, I fairly certainly would’ve surmised that this album was a soundtrack to a skuzzy, creatively dubbed crime-horror hybrid.

And to be sure, if I happened upon a shabby second-hand VHS tape of a movie named The Fact Facer, the temptation to provide it with an at least temporary new home would be considerable, particularly if the box featured the images described and prominently displayed above. To some all this might read as tangential to the task at hand, specifically assessing the selections assembled herein, but I’m frankly not so positive I’m digressing.

For instance, the sleeve of Holy Sons 2010 LP Survivalist Tales! riffed rather excellently upon the artwork attached to Jack London-inspired wilderness adventurer pulp paperbacks of a century ago. Furthermore, a substantial number of The Fact Facer’s song titles would seem proper subject matter for the twisted filmic journeys of Bava, Fulci, or Argento: “Doomed Myself,” “Transparent Powers,” “Selfish Thoughts,” “Wax Gets in Your Eyes,” “No Self Respect,” “Back Down to the Tombs.”

Of course, those mainly familiar with Amos from his drum position in artful doomsters Om may not be surprised by the exploration of dark themes, but that role is just one of many; Holy Sons is his longest running project, started as a lo-fi excursion way back in the early ‘90s. He’s also a member of indie rockers Dolorean, Portland, OR instrumental band Grails, the style-bending (and highly cinematic) duo Lilacs & Champagne with Alex John Hall, and an occasional drummer for the Texas tornado known as Jandek.

If 1,000 songs deep, Amos is admirably picky about what’s commercially available, though out of context he can still appear manageably prolific. Including The Fact Facer and Survivalist Tales!, Holy Sons has issued roughly a dozen full lengths/EPs since the turn of the millennium. That sum holds a handful of compilations, with Lost Decade II released earlier this year, and a bounty of pre-conceived albums; ‘06’s The Decline of the West is titled after the most famous work from that eternally divisive harbinger of societal pessimism Oswald Spengler. It’s a reference indicative of Amos’ general tone.

Musically he often gets compared to the usual lo-fi suspects, which isn’t really off base since he’s covered Sebadoh and Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston. Making more sense by this point are the mentions of Will Oldham and Neil Young, in both cases mainly due to similarity of voice. Indeed, the totality of his recent sonic sojourns is less straightforwardly pigeonholed. The Fact Facer begins with formidably distorted bass as thick and juicy as a $50 steak, though “Doomed Myself” wastes no time in marrying it to a drift of mildly addled indie-folky spaciousness.

While it suffices to say that Holy Sons eschews speedier tempos here and elsewhere, “Line Me Back Up,” if druggy, does open reasonably briskly, combining acoustic strumming with hazy clouds of keyboard and vocal grogginess not inaptly pegged as Beck Hansen-esque, though Amos’ singing gets quite emphatic in the choruses.

By song’s end bleakness hath taken over. It’s followed by the measured pace of “Transparent Powers,” a somewhat strange mixture of slightly curdled soft-rock, spongy psychedelia and the lingering effects of codeine. And there’s a humid environment to “Selfish Thoughts,” its programmed rhythm rubbery, layers of electronic residue enveloping the structure as the whole coasts forward gradually; it closes on a histrionic blues-rock riff dying belly-up on the beach.

“All Too Free” throws a bit of a curveball, momentarily detouring from the gloomy atmosphere to deliver an early standout, its contempo country-rock achiness crisply recorded and loaded with assured piano and craftily maximal kit-work as Amos turns in an impressive vocal performance. It’s the cut on The Fact Facer most likely to stroke the pleasure centers of My Morning Jacket fans, a turnabout unexpected but far from unwelcome.

Things fall closer to the norm with “Wax Gets in Your Eyes,” a tightly knit aural fabric that as it nears conclusion manages to integrate subtle gestures toward pop. Next comes another gear shift, “Life Could Be a Dream” being a too-short slice of San Fran-descended psych. Here Amos’ singing sounds a little like Dan Behar gone full-blown Americana; when he lets loose he does land solidly if fleetingly in the Oldham zone.

“Long Days” presents the wildest digression on the album, though for folks into Lilacs & Champagne (and who isn’t?) that might not be the case, Amos hijacking Dub elements and then applying them to a decidedly Mellow ‘70s sensibility before dicing up, stretching out, and bookending the result with an off-brand sound-effect of a thunderstorm. Hypnagogic pop lives!

If it weren’t swaddled in such sharp musical trappings (e.g. especially tough violin playing) and surrounded by so many other desolate missives, the lyrical bluntness of “No Self Respect” might easily be misconstrued for comedy; as it stands, I’m still not convinced there’s not a current of self-deprecating humor at play.

One minor quibble with The Fact Facer is that a few of its strongest entries connect almost as fragments. The same can’t be said for “Back Down to the Tombs,” which consists of nearly six minutes of what’s essentially chilled-out pop; given a change of title and handed to a chart-minded producer, after a slight edit it could appeal to a wholly different audience.

But Emil Amos’ reality comes straight out of the home recording tradition, and nothing here illustrates those circumstances better than the closing title track. A half-broken all-loner acoustic solo ramble that succeeds largely through brevity and an underlying focus keeping any perceived meandering on course, the candor of the words, seemingly by design, teeter on the tightrope of embarrassing.

A listener’s overall disposition will no doubt determine how often they engage with this record, though the sheer eclecticism helps to significantly sweeten Amos’ downer vibe. To these ears, the range is successfully harnessed as it lessens the impact a little. A whole LP of material a la “All Too Free” and “Life Could Be a Dream” is a knockout waiting to happen. The Fact Facer details Amos’ continued growth very well however, and should serve as a good introduction to his oeuvre.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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