Graded on a Curve:
Jesse Blake Rundle,
Next Town’s Trees

Boise, Idaho-based but a native of Kansas, Jesse Blake Rundle is an indie-folk stylist having just released his second full-length Next Town’s Trees on vinyl, compact disc, and digital. All eight of the album’s songs were written by Rundle, who also played nearly everything in an instrumental expansion from his debut, as he integrates drum programming and electronic elements. Conceived and recorded during a period of spiritual and sexual growth, it’s a satisfying set with an especially powerful closing track, “Stones.”

A fair percentage of contemporary indie folk can be airy and gentle (genteel, if you will) to a fault. To be sure, the music of Jesse Blake Rundle exudes a calmness that situates his work inside the genre, but there’s also an undercurrent of intensity to the songwriting and breadth to the instrumentation that helps his work to stand apart.

A solid sign that Rundle’s onto something bigger than the standard-issue indie-folk placidity is that his 2020 debut Radishes and Flowers (still available on LP/CD) features 13 songs adapted from poems by Wallace Stevens, all of them from Harmonium, Stevens’ first book of poetry, published in 1923 (the book including “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” one of the poems Rundle chose to adapt).

Next Town’s Trees’ opener “Fire” benefits from urgency and sharpness of instrumentation (the welcome addition of horns, trombones specifically, lending a hint of another Stevens, namely Sufjan) to deepen the indie-folk sweep. There are contemplative passages, but the song rises in forcefulness prior to a quick finale.

“Fools & Ghosts” mingles live and programmed drums with sturdy acoustic strumming and some electric licks as Rundle’s voice soars atop. It’s another quick number, followed by “I Want You to Know,” which tones it down and stretches out a bit, with the atmosphere enhanced by a cyclical electronic rhythmic pattern and more trombone action.

Said ‘bone is played by Johnny Enright, while the album’s engineer Nate Agenbroad contributes live drums, harmonies, and in “Fools & Ghosts,” plays bass. Additionally, Yoed Nir wrote and performs the string arrangement in “Yes, I’m Angry,” but for most of the LP, Rundle goes it alone. That’s the case with “White Hot,” which augments voice and guitar with a touch of organ and layered-in electronic additives, a facet subtly applied until suddenly, it’s not.

In addition to Nir’s strings, “Yes, I’m Angry” features a toy (or miniature) piano, a bellows instrument of some sort, plus guitar and rhythm, presumably all played by Rundle, whose singing in the track gradually attains an air reminiscent of the Beach Boys. It’s a similarity that carries over to the opening moments of “Hand in Hand,” though that song quickly asserts a vibe recalling the more settled moments from My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves.

As the longest selection on Next Town’s Trees, “Hand in Hand” serves as an effective prelude to the title track, which is robust and even a little edgy in its thrust. The album’s promo text mentions Radiohead in relation to the track “Fools & Ghosts,” but it’s in “Hand in Hand” that the comparison rings truest. And with “Stones,” Rundle shifts thematic gears, moving away from matters of personal growth (leaving his evangelical upbringing behind and embracing his sexuality as he began his first relationship with a man) and composing a piece in reaction to the insurrection on January 6.

While “Stones” finds Rundle shifting to piano, the song isn’t a radical departure from the mood of the seven tracks that lead up to it. It does bring a final spike of controlled emotion to Next Town’s Trees and further establishes Jesse Blake Rundle as one of the more interesting artists in the current indie-folk milieu.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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