Little Wings - Last (2013)
On a recent episode of Portlandia, there was a sketch that made fun of overly quiet folk music. Fred Armisen got on a stage in a field with a banjo, the band got ready, played a few hushed notes, and he sang "I had a dream, of my grandfather and his wooden chair." That was it. By the end of the sketch, a woman lightly blew on some feathers. She'd made the quietest music and had "won" the competition. The prize? Tickets to a race involving a pickup truck driving loudly through a dusty field. It was a funny moment, but it also illustrated something deeper: to make music that is obsessed with intimacy in our current world, you have to willfully disassociate yourself from the internet, from cities, and largely, from reality.
As Little Wings, Kyle Field has made a practice out of hiding out from the world while continuing to try and understand it. He's kicked around in M Ward's backing band, he played with Devendra Banhart for awhile. Mostly, he became known as a staple of the wide-eyed post Beat Happening K Records scene-- appearing on a few Microphones records while also collaborating with Calvin Johnson. What he shares with that scene is a reverent approach to nature and an appealingly amateur vocal style. You get the feeling that he'd prefer to walk around in the moss with no shoes on than check his email.
Musically, he isn't going so much for innovation as he is for a constant exploration of themes across an entire discography: loneliness, growing older, singing about his own music as a means of self-discovery in an infinite feedback loop that creates an entire world. Because of that, it's difficult to know where to start with the Little Wings catalog. It's all generally good, with moments of greatness peppered throughout.
There's a sepia flatness to the songs on LAST. Heavy moments are portrayed at exactly the same tempo and lyrical level. Field might be singing about death, life, or sitting around his house, but it's all going to touch on the same idea that the quietest moments are also the most transcendent ones...you just have to notice they exist. At his best, Field positions himself as an observer of nature and of himself. When he sings "there goes my light feeling," on "Light Feeling" his voice cracks and strains against his own constraints. He doesn't sound sad to lose happiness, instead he sings from outside himself, like it's maybe a bummer worth noting later. It's a neat effect, but can become exhausting over the course of an album. You want him to experience some sort of catharsis-- and maybe he is, but if that's the case, we're only feeling it with him about half the time.
Not too long ago, British author Zadie Smith spoke at the New York Public Library. As an aside, she half-joked that if a book involves a character staring out an ocean, it's probably not very good. Her point being that everyone is in awe of an ocean and everyone is in awe of nature, so staring out at a vast expanse of water and not being able to see a horizon is now emotional shorthand for poignancy. Maybe it's worth finding other ways to be deep. There are, of course, always exceptions to this rule. Field is able to transform the mundane into a quietly shared experience-- it works as a sort of Introspective Depressives Anonymous. His songs are for people fiending for the next transcendent moment to jumpstart their lives. He knows these moments can exist, but is never sure where he'll next find them. On "Wide Daylight" he wonders if he can "manage to turn the corner again." The implication being that the song itself could be that corner for at least a few listeners somewhere.
By the time "You Know Who" starts, it feels like a turning point. A break from Field's shaky-voiced uncertainty comes in the form of murky keys that give way to an unexpectedly strong moment, when Field sings "barely old enough to fade now, and young enough to be strong," he's illustrating a particular kind of purgatory-- the space between full blown responsible adulthood and the last remnants of youthful brashness. With over a decade's worth of music under his belt, he seems content to stay there forever.