HELLER MASON – Minimalist & Anchored
Even if Heller Mason’s EP Minimalist & Anchored was only as good as its song titles, it would already be pretty great. Titles like “After All is Said and Done, More Was Said Than Done,” “Packing My Bags for Hell,” and “Sick to Death of Sobriety” whisper of something strangely dark and beautiful, and the songs themselves are both intimate and sweeping, worldly without ever leaving the bedroom. With an address in Little Chute, WI, Heller Mason is a Fox Valley neighbor of members of the similar-minded New Kentucky Quarter, and in fact Todd Vandenberg (who is Heller Mason) called on some of NKQ for help in the studio, probably not coincidentally, at Green Bay’s Simple Studios where last year’s exquisite Simple Things was also recorded. NKQ’s Abigail Zdrale adds lovely backing vocals and distinctive Wurlitzer organ, while Matthew Rajala contributes electric guitar.
They apparently aren’t the only talent in the Valley. Daniel McMahon’s lap steel along with Adam Cargin’s insistent drumming make “Packing My Bags for Hell” the best alt-country song this year that you won’t read about in the pages of No Depression. Matt Twenek’s mournful cello, especially effective on the final tracks (the title track and the appropriate “So, This is How It Ends?”), makes comparisons to the cello-centric Matt Pond PA inevitable, even if Heller Mason never gets quite as worked up as Pond does. Without ever seeming to break a sweat, Vandenberg has released six songs of fragile beauty, doubly impressive as a first effort. If his world-weary lyrics are to be believed as auto-biographical (“Hope we’re still together when I’m 24 / Because I want to show you everything”), Vandenberg’s songs belie his years. This is a remarkable songwriting talent for someone who only started writing songs in 2001 when his mother bought him a guitar.
If, like High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon, you find yourself compulsively rearranging your CD collection in a way other than alphabetical and this week it happens to be by mood, then file Minimalist & Anchored in between Spain’s elegant She Haunts My Dreams and Mojave 3’s pastoral Excuses for Travelers. Then, on some rainy afternoon, load those, along with something by Low and maybe the Red House Painters into the CD player and spend the day going through old photo albums, because this is music made for daydreaming and losing yourself in memories.