Ithaca’s known for its dazzling natural scenery (‘Ithaca is Gorges’—I’m sure you’ve seen the T-shirts). Musician Jason Calhoun mans the reins as Ithaca’s Paper Armies, an ambient post-rock act that distills Ithaca’s gorgeous landscapes into palatable bursts of emotion. He’s a master mixologist, using only piano, guitar, and vocals to blend the aesthetic beauty of a foggy forest with dulcet compositions.
Take “Trying to Let Go,” the scratchy opener from Paper Armies’ latest release, a split with Portland’s Desert of Hiatus. Beginning with some pins-and-needles distortion, “Trying to Let Go” eventually settles into a full-blown dream. A thick fog envelops the track at its halfway point and doesn’t subside until the end. Again, a perfect mingling of mental sight and sound.
Calhoun’s had some practice with his art, creating music under the Paper Armies name since late 2009. He released the first Paper Armies album in summer 2010 and made it available for free download on his Bandcamp page. This new split release with Desert of Hiatus features more of what’s made Paper Armies unique—the jagged twang of post-rock influence to mostly ambient sounds.
“Palm Tree” could be a cousin of Sigur Rós’ “Njósnavélin” (a.k.a. “The Nothing Song”) with its underwater miasma coated by a glaze of saw-toothed fuzz. Calhoun’s voice is in there somewhere, but you can’t tell exactly where. Those smoggy moans could be real words or meaningless vowel sounds. But it doesn’t matter; it’s all about quiet intensity. The meaning is there. You might just have to inject it yourself.
It seems strange to say there’s an instrumental interlude on an already instrumental collection of songs, but there is. The minute-and-a-half “Heretic” lacks the billowing unfurl of its companion tracks, opting for a steady stream of breathy tones instead. They rise and fall like waves on a pale beach of noise before simply quieting down for good. It’s a great approach, a brief pause between two pairs of controlled sound-spill.
Five songs, nearly twenty minutes and lots of space to connect the dots. That’s Ithaca’s Paper Armies: pure dream music. The yearning feeling that comes from stargazing. Maybe even the stuff that plays inside the womb for all we know. Whatever it is, it’s special and it’s unforgettable.
Review by Patrick Hosken