CAPTAIN YONDER – Captain Yonder
Dark threads of death and madness run deep in Captain Yonder’s third release. This is subject matter very familiar to listeners of the Handsome Family, whom they very closely resemble. Principal members, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Pfeiffer and cellist Esme Schwall, could easily be mistaken for a parallel-universe version of the HF’s Brett and Rennie Sparks. As uneasily married couple whose mental illnesses have been well documented, the Sparks’ darkly beautiful music lies in a gray area between bluegrass, traditional and alt-country in which few others have ventured. Into that no-man’s land plunges Captain Yonder with this eponymous record. An eight-song dream cycle full of vivid imagery of woods and water, it tells the story of a man realizing his mortality with all the dark beauty of the Handsome Family’s best records. While Pfeiffer’s voice bears little resemblance to Brett’s baritone, his lyrics can stand up to some of Rennie’s most haunting material.
Nowhere is this ghostly vision more obvious than the on second track, “Hey-Away-Ho,” which initially seems to be just about a mysterious sexual encounter, but becomes increasingly supernatural until you suspect the narrator died in the first verse and his meeting was actually with a spirit. The “hey-away-ho” chorus recurs in the final tune, “The Barge Song,” in which the brave Captain Clark probably, though not conclusively, died in a barge accident (or was it suicide?) on the river. The song’s last verse contains the moral of the story: “The trouble with dying is you must live to do it / And the trouble with living is the dying of dreams.” But the illusion of a poignant eulogy is destroyed by the “aargh-matey” vocals of Swamper McPhee, who by the sound of him also supplies the voice of the old salt Captain McCallister from The Simpsons. And the jarringly out-of-place line “He hoped that that barge would really fuck up something big downstream,” wipes out any old-world charm that remained.
Prior to the unsatisfying conclusion it is easy to get lost in the mysterious imagery of the rest of their songs. Even the trees seem to bleed in the ghost-story gloom of “Look, the Oaks!” (Schwall proves herself in her sole turn at lyric-writing). “Soon I Will Sail” flounders in a dark ocean, cutting its feet on the volcanic rocks and begging Poseidon to come. In “Crazy on the Hill” and “The Green Plains,” the evil is easier to identify, as death images are interwoven with those of war. The former bemoans, “The boots of the men who killed for peace are as empty as those who fell,” while the latter states “Sweat stains the uniforms / Powder spills from hands wound,” over Craig Johnson’s vaguely militaristic drum cadence. Though they haven’t quite reached the love-equals-madness genius of the Handsome Family, Captain Yonder has quite certainly set sail in search of it.