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Rivulets - We're Fucked [Important Records - 2012]

There have been countless indie singer/songwriters who master in fragility since the heyday of Elliott Smith but few have the shtick down quite as firmly as Nathan Amundson, the creative core of Rivulets.

By naming his fourth album We’re Fucked, he’s walking the line between aggression and defeat, a perfectly representative tension for its contents. Most artists would err toward one side or the other, but Amundson has the keen ability to dial it back when necessary in service of the song and often actually goes the other way entirely, sometimes within the span of two minutes. He’s nothing if not economical when it comes to writing and performance, and is therefore often blessed/cursed with the ubiquitous “minimalist” tag. Six of the songs on We’re Fucked clock in under two minutes; ten of them are under three. There are no electronic sounds or production tricks.

Musically, the tension is most often maintained by the power trio Rivulets has become in its live incarnation. The nastiest moments of the record use electric guitar, bass, and drums to create an immersive grinding ugliness (Amundson’s view of the world?) that threatens to overtake most tracks but never lingers. Instead, the burden remains with Amundson’s strummed guitar and quivering voice (heftier than Smith’s while less histrionic than Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart), at which moments the proceedings can become so intimate that each breath, the squeaks of the strings, and the flutters of paper in the background are shamelessly exposed.

Amundson’s world view is also clearly stated in the title: “We’re fucked.” Amundson means this as a talking point rather than a conclusion, but the overall vibe is still rather dour; this is little to no humor on the record, just one man waging wars with carefully sculpted innuendo. The only lyrics for the first track state, “No, I haven’t spoke to you. And I don’t know how you’ve been. It’s been so long that I don’t even know where you are living.” The simple pairing of acoustic guitar and voice finds just the right rhythm, the right pace, and the right melody to be compelling, but does nothing to interfere with the song’s message. If it weren’t for the multi-tracked, wordless vocals that pick up immediately afterward for a surprisingly full-bodied and meaningful chorus, the song (“Interstate”) would be bereft of hope.

The only track more stripped down is the minute long “I Am,” in which Amundson sings, “I am coffee and cigarettes, I am whiskey and sleeplessness.” Here he seems to be confusing who he is with what he does, and in a moment much later on the album (“Souls”) he finally seems to recognize the tragedy behind this. “Where are are the souls you’ve hidden, where have the souls gone?” he cries in a panicky falsetto blast prior to a noisy guitar shakeup. Every musical moment is precisely engineered for dramatic impact, and like this one, many have a counterpoint example somewhere else on the album. It’s no accident that the two seemingly unrelated parts of “Gentile Boyfriend” illustrate death on both sides of a relationship. In one, “It’s the cancer they’ll find that’ll kill you,” while in the other, “It’s your long hair that kills me.”

Even when all of Amundson’s exercises in tension come together into full-bodied songs, they can be marred with irony or gutted by self-sabotage. “I Don’t Want to Be Found” could almost be an anthem, but despite a memorable chorus it perversely cuts out too soon. And “The Road” dynamically careens back and forth with purpose but ultimately reveals that the path less familiar to Amundson always takes him to the same seductive dark place that he presumably wants to leave. (“I will take the road down that darkened path, it will lead me back to your door.”) Despite its dourness, We’re Fucked is not a record about wallowing; it is about overcoming endless loops and the desire to fight in the face of foregone conclusion.

Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5Rating: 4 out of 5

Richard T Williams
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