I’ve spent the past week racking my brain, trying to put my finger on what exactly it is I love about Ashland, the new album from EP – the Newfoundland-based project of Eric Penney and pals. Why halfway through a third consecutive listen I ordered it on vinyl. Why it almost immediately gained the top of my list of 2015’s best albums. There is certainly something elusive about this album – some strange slight of hand that seems to make us want to call it minimal when it’s anything but, or describe it as complex when it’s not the least bit convoluted but rather straight-forward. It’s not a dark album. It’s a quite fun and massively entertaining album, yet it’s also somehow melancholy, even ever so slightly grim.
Ashland opens with the peal of an organ – a short, quivering set of notes reminiscent of the intro to an old-time radio drama. It’s a fitting beginning to an album with such a palpable narrative quality to it. By the time we get to the opening line, we know we’re in for something special
“Big fat shimmering black star
in the sky
spitting out starbeams over our graves
after we’ve died”
Each song develops and unfolds into something complete, detailed and distinct. Some songs are languid and plodding. Others are rhythmic and driven. Some contain ethereal, echoing notes which seem drawn from invisible, deep rifts. Others evoke sounds that chug and chitter against the fretboard. A guitar sings dreamily or shrieks, reverberating heavily. There are sharp, biting sounds and melon-round, rinded and rolling sounds. Penney is a deft lyricist and his voice is beguiling and heady throughout. It’s no velvety smooth baritone or bass but something much earthier. No doubt he can dip to a deep tarry pitch yet it doesn’t seem quite true to claim that he sings low.
‘Sans Eyes, Sans Teeth, Sans Hair’ chugs along and continues with the wonderfully odd lyrics (“I hear the voice behind my head, the fingernails beneath the bed / I see no function to it /it’s coming through all black and blue/ it comes true”), culminating in a finale both squally and messily cathartic, lots of thunderous percussion and yelpy group vocals. ‘A Swift Thing’ is taut and gathering, with a staccato ratatat drum beat and scratchy power guitars. The lyrics, imbued with a sense of anxiety, are all about our futile attempts to shut out the creeping dread of the information age:
“I buy the papers there’s gore and gloom
lets read the funnies and the crosswords too
and I’ll read you a clue”
‘Old Honey (No Time For Love)’ is all peaks and lulls, with group vocals that deliver the lines in little bursts, while ‘What 1 and 1 and 1 and 1 and 1 Add Up To’ has needly little guitars which give way to a punky energy, and ‘Cryptic Park’ is dense and barely restrained, like a big nasty dog on a chain straining to break free. Eventually the song is released in a clatter of drums, juxtaposed with the almost deadpan vocals. Closer ‘Grammar, Please’ is a thrashy indie rocker, equal parts passion and apathy.
This is an incredibly versatile, textured and astoundingly cohesive album. All tracks are rendered by the same hand and bear the definite mark of their maker. It reminds me of a very good short story collection, the musical equivalent of Rick Bass’ The Watch or Charles D’Amrbosio’s The Dead Fish Museum. In pieces it’s many different things – different settings, different scenes, different moods. Those pieces together are something different still – an accumulated breadth and depth, a well wrought and complete collection. This album is novel but it’s not a novelty. Essentially, for lack of a better description, it’s bewilderingly good.