CD by Lightspeed Champion.
It is a surprise to initially hear Lightspeed Champion's debut, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge, especially for those who may be familiar with the UK singer/songwriter (whose real name is Devonte Hynes) from his former band, The Test Icicles, whose jagged thrash punk was near-chaotic. Then again, this recording is full of surprises. From the delicate pedal steel of the opening song, "Number One," you realize that this is light-years from his original persona.
One could give credit to producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, one of the three principle members of Bright Eyes, who lends his Saddle Creek label sentiments. The record's alt-country sound is filled with pedal steel, strings, woodwinds, banjo and keyboards that comfortably surround the vocals. Mogis also worked as engineer/producer for Bright Eyes albums Cassadaga, I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, as well as producing Rabbit Fur Coat, the recent solo effort by Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley.
What Hynes brings is his classic British pop song sensibility — reminiscent of Prefab Sprout or The Daintees, and songs full of parts — with time changes and chord changes that often arrive in a surprising place. His lyrics are full of ache, insecurity and fatalism. As he noted in a recent Mojo interview, he wrote all of the songs "in one go, on a long play journey, suffering from insomnia and having just broken up with my girlfriend. My stream of consciousness was just flying wild."
His sensitive "All to Shit" is a beautiful, melodic song of break-up, with only a string arrangement to accompany his vulnerable vocal. "Midnight Surprise" is a song that seems to have three parts seamlessly strung together slowly building to an Arcade Fire-like crescendo. Songs such as "Dry Lips" or "Let the Bitches Die" have oddly upbeat mandolin-driven, hook-laden melodies juxtaposed with Hynes' fatalistic lyrics as if they were joyous discoveries, enhanced by the lovely backing vocals of little-known British singer/songwriter "Emmy the Great" (Emma-Lee Moss).
It's also worth noting that Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes arranged the string parts for Falling Off The Lavender Bridge, which was recorded at the Saddle Creek studios in Omaha.
At first thought, this combination seems oddball, but it works. The production and arrangements enhance the songs, rather than smother them. And like the surprise of Bright Eyes' Cassadaga, one of last year's strongest records, it's filled with eccentric changes, textural elements and dark lyricism. Lightspeed Champion's debut release is full of depth, craft and dark beauty that allows you to notice numerous different layers upon repeated listening. While Lightspeed Champion has already turned in one of the strongest debuts of 2008, it is reported that he has already written songs for two more albums. One is curious what that material will sound like. Expect a bounty of surprises — good ones — if they're anything like this debut.