Rella the Woodcutter - The Golden Undertow [Boring Machines - 2011]
Rella the Woodcutter is an Italian artist who creates a bluesy psychedelic folk, by all appearances aspiring to be something like Italy's Devendra Banhart, where every crack and quaver of his voice seems intended to sound wise, woodsy and mysterious: relying heavily on charm and atmosphere. "The Golden Undertow" is his latest album, a very lo-fi affair, likely recorded on a 4 track tape recorder or comparable device.
Luckily, Rella's personality turns out to be endearing and free of posturing. Contrasting Devendra's mysticism, he focuses on romantic subject matter, and many of the songs are written as if sung to a lover. His occasionally clumsy English phrasing and heavy accent only serve to enhance the sense that his heart is on his sleave. "I do belong to your past, that's clear...", he laments at the beginning of "A Forest Story".
However, the songs are performed very quietly, perhaps more sloppily and sluggishly than they should be. The album plays like a drunken 3 AM reading of all his songs, some of which are still loose unfinished fragments. It's deeply honest and world weary, but he is singing inward, the words are mumbled - at least 1/3 of the lyrics are lost this way! His singing, while of a pleasant nice tone, is off key and out of breath, and the performances have an unfocused, thoughtless feel, like he's played these songs 1,000 times and is simply going through the motions.
The first few numbers especially have a Jandek-esque looseness/emptiness: one would hardly know Rella could actually play the guitar. On my first listen, I feared a lack of substance would plague this recording. Each of the first three songs are just a single melody and riff, pleasant but unremarkable.
It turns out he can play, and the later tracks boast more complex chord progressions, as well as multiple sections, and evidence that Rella understands development, and the haunting subtleties of minor key chordal harmony. I'm quite taken with "Black Universe", which has real existential gravitas, as well as the title track, "The Golden Undertow". These are the longer songs on the disk, and also more animated than the opening tracks. They have the apocalyptic, ominous melancholy of neofolk artists like The Psychogeographical Commission.
The lone key major number, "Five", utilizes the age old lyrical device of beginning each of its 5 stanzas with a number, counting down from five over the course of the song: "Four reasons to decide which way I'm gonna go tonight / Three hours left to work...", etc. It has the grounded, relaxed feel of everyday chores, and I enjoy it.
Most of the songs are peppered with twangy 'psychedelic' solos which could have just as easily been played by a sitar. They're very unoriginal, but expressive, and feel like an homage to classic psychedelic, culminating in closer "Drugtime Family", an 8 minute droning jam. This song has a lot more layers and percussion than the rest of the album, and it makes me wish he'd explored the possibility of fleshing out the other songs.
Ultimately, this sounds like a demo of the real thing. Rella should practice enunciating and using his full lung capacity to sing, drink a few cups of coffee and rerecord the whole thing at a studio, where a good microphone could dredge his charisma out of the lo fi murk. I enjoy the album as a whole, and it's short enough to be very listenable, but it's far from the most powerful statement Rella, or even these songs, could make.