Review: Doug Tielli – Swan Sky Sea Squirrel
Published on February 6th, 2012 | Jonny Abrams
The buzz: Solo debut from brother of Martin (Rheostatics) and John (Rock Plaza Central), performed, recorded and produced for the most part by Doug himself at an “artist retreat centre” in his home city of Toronto. In his own words…
“There was no reason for me to make a record at the time. No one was waiting for it anywhere. So I spent most of the time in quiet, listening to and watching the animals – mostly different waterfowl and small birds, lying on the beach, looking wordlessly out to the horizon, finding interesting things to bring back to my portable like stones, beach treasures, butterflies, sticks … It is a beautiful place. It is odd too, because you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but you can also feel the huge energetic shadow of the big city right behind you.
“[Minimalist painter] Agnes Martin’s book entitled With My Back to the World comes to mind … yes, my back was turned to the world, but the world was also at my back, and over my shoulder too. And so if I went indoors to record something, and it didn’t make me shiver like a good breeze, or warm me on the inside like a crabapple in the sun, I knew that the music wasn’t ripe yet, and I just went back outside to wander.”
Sounds like: Very much the melting pot of natural vibes, elements and colours as detailed by Tielli above. Aside from his mournful, ‘falsetto Beirut’ voice, he apparently handles all of the following on this album: guitars, trombone, saw, bass, drums and percussion. Basically, he’s a one-man Elephant 6 band wearing a hangdog expression borne of reflective solitude, time spent alone with nature and a remarkable aptitude for instrumentation.
Intricate yet intimate, stark yet otherworldly, this could only be a solo record (heck, the first track is even called “Yes I Am Lonely”). The pace may be almost unyieldingly somnambulant – perhaps even ‘monged’ in its eerier, more inscrutable moments – but the manner in which these eleven tracks document a clearly fevered mind in isolation from day-to-day existence is a point of fascination that art in general carries back with it hundreds, if not thousands or millions, of years.
That doesn’t make it good, of course; in fact, it’s Tielli’s ability to recover meandering, affecting melody out of ramshackle minimalism that makes it good. Such is the almost improvised-sounding nature of these songs that it’s not easy to keep abreast of any messages spelled out within the lyrics, but the implications of desolate slow-dances with insanity are loud and clear. Well, not loud; for its lulling quality, this is an ideal album for drifting off to, and that’s meant in a Miles Davis/Nick Drake sense rather than a ‘chill-out compilation’ sense.
If pressed for highlights at this early stage of familiarity, Rocksucker would plump for the enchanted rockpool of “Riversea”, the shimmering, nocturnally twinkling “Swan” and frankly alarming howling-at-the-moon dub of “Santia”, but Swan Sky Sea Squirrel would appear to have been designed to be consumed – and could almost pass as having been completed in – a single sitting. Summer soundtrack it ain’t, but it sure comes out to play in the dark.
In a few words: Otherworldly, spellbinding, disorienting, frequently beautiful.