I first heard Jim Guthrie in a Starbucks, on one of their “Modern Grind” mixes. His track, “Trouble,” was a strange mix of electronica and folk music. I had looked for him for a while, but couldn’t find anything despite repeated Google searches. Finally, a buddy of mine gave me his latest CD, Now, More Than Ever over Thanksgiving. It was well worth the wait.
In a nutshell: Jim Guthrie owns Three Gut Records, a small independent label from Toronto, Canada. They’ve had some really good growth the past years, enough to attact the good folks at Hear Music. Guthrie himself has released three albums, all very low-key, with only his latest making the intrepid trip across the border to music stores here.
Now, More Than Ever is the first album Guthrie has recorded with other musicians, and the result is shiver-inducing (that’s a good thing, mind you). He has focused less on the electronic underpinnings of his other music (though at some live shows he still relies on his reprogrammed Sony Playstation for backup instrumentation) and shifted to a more acoustic feel. The result, though laden with strings, manages to be not just tasteful, but electric. There are echoes of the Beatles, Stereolab, Belle & Sebastian, even Damien Rice being thrown about, and it is wondrous to experience.
“Problems With Solutions” is the pensive opener. A playful cello is underneath the plucked acoustic guitar, and hand claps help keep the beat. “When I’m drinking and had a few/Lord only knows what I said to you/In a smoky bar downtown/People swirling all around.” He’s firmly in the standard singer-songwriter mold here, playing at people watching and somehow trying to make a larger socioeconomic point. “The longer the hesitation/The smaller the celebration/A guide to our salvation/A problem with solutions.” The cello here is jumping around a major chord, making the guitar somehow sad, despite the theoretically peppy sound. Suddenly, an entire string section cuts in, going dischordant and minor, souring the entire feel of the song. With a start, everything reverts back to the sound of the first verse, with bongos rising in the mix.
“All Gone” is a subtle send-up to Stereolab. The general feel of the song is straight off “Miss Modular” (from Dots and Loops), though Guthrie replaced the moog with a thick string section. The first time I heard this, with the whispering backgrounds echoing key phrases and the strings shimmering all around, I totally missed the dry wit Guthrie placed throughout the song. “The forest needs a fire/Like the fire needs a tree.” I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but that is a surprisingly deep statement, when you think about it. These sorts of comparisons continue as the song progresses, making less and less sense, but the backing strings keep pace, alternatively swelling, fluttering, or calming as the tone shifts. The combination of near-inanity and subtle mood strings is intense.
There are other sonic masterpieces here, like “So Small” with its captivating piano and guitar strum, and the disjointed strumming of “Now, More Than Ever.” Elsewhere, strings take over a prime harmonic role, as in “Time Is A Force.”
Guthrie keeps on dropping almost-hidden jokes into his songs. In “Save It,” after a quiet play of piano and string-screech, you hear an angry tale of paranoia. “I can see the future but only when I blink… I can see past thoughts that people didn’t think.” It’s very dark, almost overpowering in its weight. After three minutes of this, an insistent riff on the strings starts up, and the entire feel of the song changes. Now it is time to escape. “I had a life affirming talk/With the garbage man today/He said, “Believe in me”/And took the trash away/Oh, how do you do it?” For whatever reason, that makes me smile, even when I read it without the strangely East European strings in the background. It’s his most Belle & Sebastian moment, and like most B&S songs, is simultaneously charming and disconcerting.
For the most part, though, the record is a downer. In fact, it’s damned hard to listen to it all the way through without feeling a touch depressed. Think if a lighter version of Out of the Fierce Parade, with the angst of a grown-up instead of a fifteen-year old. Also, Guthrie, unlike Nagler on that album, doesn’t whine.
However, once this down mood is established, we are treated to a pleasant surprise—an upbeat, ukulele-driven love song in 2.5 minutes. It’s cute, catchy, and complimented by a lazy surf guitar. Guthrie again hits us with his dry humor: “There is still one catch to all of this/Do you exist?”
Jim Guthrie certainly does. Now, More Than Ever should exist, too, in your CD collections.