Underground River is a two-piece band from Binghamton that specializes in music that combines one of the most perennially traditional genres, folk, with fringe-sounding music and production techniques, a la groups like Flaming Lips. Their new LP, Endless Air; the Other Side of Happenings, out on Oneonta-based Owl Records/Blood Dirt Cassettes, epitomizes a strand of quiet, nightmarish Americana.
Opener “Modern Man” takes the premise of alt-country to a much darker place than the genre usually occupies, with the more traditional elements being mixed with newer ideas. The gentle finger picking and almost pastoral lyrics are dour to begin with and only get more so as the song progresses. Then comes touches of static and feedback and ethereal background vocals that sound like they’re being broadcast from a radio signal that has been bouncing around in space since the early 1900s. The song gets more and more claustrophobic and tense, but its greatest trick is hanging a noose around the listener’s neck without ever tightening it; the cliché eleventh-hour eruption that so often comes with a song like this never arrives, thankfully.
Other songs continue this trend of inverting country/Southern rock stereotypes: “In the Sand” prominently features a string of jarring feedback laid across what would be a typical country groove (replete with twangy guitar fills) were it not slowed down to a stoner-metal tempo. The song proceeds to disintegrate at a gravely pace until finally disappearing. “Angel in the Snow (Chalkboard Blues),” a track in 3/4 time, falls somewhere between a shuffle and a waltz. The song features guest vocals from Jade Soto of Summer People (also out of the Binghamton region), with her voice dancing wistfully around the steadier lead vocals of singer Hunter Davidsohn. “Cure Me Slowly” is a lament on life of fraught, lost potential with a chorus of spirits beckoning a protagonist onward to further misery and solitude.
Perhaps the creepiest parts of the album are when the darkness is stripped away and the band plays it a bit straighter, such as with “Dandelions,” a single chord gospel-tinged track that is a portrait of what the Carter family would sound like if they were all strung out on junk. Midway through the song a backwards loop is introduced that sounds like a fading heartbeat as someone ODs into a blissful afterlife.
Although the album is predominantly dark (and even the brighter moments are still rather bleak), there are occasional rays of light; “Precious Stone” is as close as it gets to a straightforward, heartfelt ballad, complete with a plaintive cello. The song would easily find a home as a song with more mainstream like-minded artists were it not for one simple subversion; the muted, garbled vocals hiding beneath the mix that pull the song apart like gremlins attacking a well-oiled piece of machinery. The vocals slow down into an eerie, possessed voice that emits waves of unease.
Other songs delve much deeper into the feedback and noise that is used as mere confection on other tracks; “Golden Spinach” is built around a droning mishmash of synthetic sounds and modal harmony punctuated by bits of electric guitar that resemble a dull knife (which can be far more terrifying than a sharp one, mind you).
The most fully realized song on the album is “We Are Not Friends,” a song that marries the conventional verse-chorus structure with foreign-sounding elements; a modal harmonic structure, tom-heavy percussion that recalls Africa, or ancient India, or any tribal civilization, and an understated vocal that sounds not unlike a monk slipping into a trance and being unable to purge a mantra no matter how much it is repeated.
“And the Rest Goes on Forever” is perhaps the most subdued track on the album, closing the album out with a final weary declamation. A bubbly synth rises to the surface only to be pulled back down to the depths. Splashes of keyboard and vocals arrive and are shown the door, and beyond the final droning note, the last sound heard is of someone shifting in a seat, as if to signal that the story is over and it’s time to go.
This album is full of great moments. But it certainly isn’t party music, unless you and your friends are into sitting in a circle pondering desolate existentialism. This is more “dark night of the soul” kind of music. And it is very dark. But very good.
Review by Liam McManus