Graded on a Curve:
Mark Renner,
Few Traces

Mark Renner’s name may not ring a multitude of bells, but for those hungering for unearthed ’80s sounds, RVNG Intl.’s release of Few Traces might just change that; influenced by John Foxx-era Ultravox, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Bill Nelson, The Skids, The Associates, and Van Morrison’s mid-’80s period, Baltimorean Renner fully embraced the smart pop possibilities of the era. The maturity should stoke fans of the above names, as well as David Sylvian, Cocteau Twins, and even Felt, as the impact of the written word (from Herman Hesse to William Butler Yeats to John Greanleaf Whittier) helps the whole in standing out. Available now on compact disc and digital, the double vinyl arrives February 23.

Although Mark Renner’s entry into musicmaking began by answering an ad to join a band (the enticing factor in his case was the mention of big fave Ultravox), the music collected on Few Traces was recorded later and largely solo, with the artist utilizing a four-track recorder, voice, electric guitar, and a Casio CZ101 synthesizer.

Renner debuted in 1986 with the self-released All Walks of this Life. Most of that album is included here, and along with early singles, compilation tracks, and unreleased material, there appears to be one cut from his full-length follow-up Painter’s Joy, which came out on ’88 through the partnership of the labels Dimension and Restless. Decades later, RVNG Intl.’s Matt Werth picked up a copy of Renner’s debut at a Philadelphia flea market, and the seed of Few Traces was planted.

This is not to suggest that Renner hung it up creatively after Painter’s Joy. While he’s been more active recently as a painter and printmaker, there are a handful of releases available digitally via Bandcamp. I’ve not heard those, but the consistent high quality of Few Traces does instill interest in checking them out, and Maia Stern’s upcoming documentary on Renner, as well.

This collection of his early stuff succeeds for numerous reasons. To start, there’s RVNG’s assemblage, an effort the promo text describes as “intuitive” sequencing, as side one begins with “Riverside,” a Casio-imbued instrumental selection originally situated eight tracks deep on All Walks of this Life. Accurately suggesting a modestly-scaled version of the ’80s more adult-minded tech explorations, “Riverside” is immediately followed by the glistening guitar and swirling synth of “Saints and Sages,” a tune that should be right up the ally of not just Felt fans, but lovers of Flying Nun and indie pop in general.

And this gets right to the core of Renner’s dual appeal. His work, at least of this vintage, delivers a welcome time capsule, but it occasionally also sounds as if it could’ve been concocted in a bedroom pop lab at any time over the last fifteen or so years. Few Traces interweaves additional instrumental pieces, such as the mildly synth poppy title track and the buoyant cascades of side two’s opener “The Mirror at St. Andrews” with somewhat C86-ish vocal numbers, e.g. the alternately punchy and echoing rhythms of the six-minute “Half a Heart” and the intensely strummed “The Wild House.”

The vaguely Residents-like “The Dyer’s Hand,” the stately “John Cowie (The Portrait Group)” and the crisp ’80s Anglo riffing and drumbox chatter of “Autumn Calls You by Name” sorta solidify a non-vocal pattern, but the gorgeous and succinct guitar piece “Princes Street,” the mallet percussion and trumpet-infused “A Fountain in the Cloister,” and “The Sun in His Head, a Storm in His Heart” expand it (this last finds an electro cloud enveloping a tape of Skids man Richard Jobson reading the Scottish folk song/ lullaby “Hush, Hush, Time To Be Sleeping”).

But it’s the mingled keyboard-synth shimmer of “Ageless” that really underscores the comparisons to Sylvian and The Blue Nile. From there, “Jars of Clay” lands between early electronic pop (said Ultravox influence) and the era’s budding cassette underground as the atmosphere of “The Eternal Purpose” nods toward pre-dance Industrial, the fragment “The Man & the Echo” offers a retro-futurist vibe (long before it came into vogue), and “Big as Trees” resonates like a mix of indie pop and DIY (likewise, made cooler by achieving said combo without the premeditation of hindsight).

Happily, the literary influence cited up top isn’t manifested by strained loquaciousness; please see, “Yeats, and the Golden Dawn,” an instrumental landing on the spacey side of New Age (it couples nicely with closer “Wounds”). No, when Renner does use his deep but not overly somber voice, it’s to deepen pop-angled cuts like “More or Less.” But on that one, I’ll admit he reminds me a bit of Leonard Cohen.

To reinforce the strength of RVNG’s construction, penultimate track “It Might Have Been” is an instrumental rendering of “Saints and Sages” that bookends perfectly with its vocal counterpart on side one. However, in the end Few Traces’ noteworthiness comes right down to Mark Renner; given the background, it’s a record with wider appeal than one might suspect. Hopefully, this time around those listeners will find it.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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