Austin Crane is one of many acoustic guitar-toting singer/songwriters hanging around college campuses across America, but the music he makes is anything but ordinary. Instead of the simple, often cliche-ridden songs about love and heartache that are standard fare of the twentysomething crowd, Crane tends towards weighty meditations on faith, doubt, God and being alive, with a myriad of Biblical references throughout. The complexity and seriousness of his subject matter could be the bane of a lesser writer, but by eschewing direct moral lessons or proselytizing, and by making great use of his unusual, sinewy voice, the young songwriter is utterly believable and engaging as he grapples with his weighty topics without attempting to provide the answers. Often times he seems to feel around the words with his voice, as if probing them for a still-elusive meaning.
Of course, Crane is buoyed by his incredible bandmates (Nathan Poole-guitar, Jimmy Gibson-bass, Caleb Weathersby-drums) and local recording savant (and former Baumer frontman) Kenny McWilliams on A Place, to the point where this record is a quantum leap forward from your traditional folk singer/songwriter effort. The end result of their hard work is that Crane’s voice floats over a bed of dark, edgy electric guitars and booming percussion that provide something akin to a more jagged version of the sound that Band of Horses has become so adept at. The music provides a perfect sonic and thematic background for the songs, as the music swirls, glides, snarls and disappears in time with the constant confusion and emotionally fraught words being delivered by Crane’s voice at the center of it all. A veritable indie-pop/rock force of nature, as it were. Other fitting comparisons are Pedro the Lion, the Death Cab for Cutie and even Neutral Milk Hotel, although each for different enough reasons that it quickly becomes apparent that the group has their own individual, if not startlingly original, sound.
The opening song, aptly titled “The First Shall Be,” sets up a practical case-study of the group’s aesthetic. Beginning with a droning organ part provided by McWilliams and a stilted, huge-sounding drum part, the song takes its form from Crane’s acoustic guitar and vocal melody but is not tied to it. When Poole’s electric part comes in it lifts the song off the ground and into the air, a fitting emotion for lyrics that are searchingly reaching for understanding. All of the music except the acoustic guitar drops away frequently drops away as if abandoning the voice at a moment of uncertainty only to come back like a force of nature a few bars later. Other highlights include “My Little Lamb,” the title cut, and the cacophonous “Tow the Line,” which segues brilliantly into “Teeth in Your Side,” another top-notch track. Each track makes use of a similar sonic blueprint, but the group’s flair for anthemic arrangements and weighty lyricism begs for repeated listenings.
Although the group is comprised entirely of still-enrolled students, they are making a strong effort to support the record and see where their music can take them. Catch them around town or at one of their numerous shows across the state to see one of the most exciting up-and-coming acts from Columbia!