Back in the rough and tumble days before we had music blogs and Mediafire.com and digital distros (basically before we were walking talking media receptacles), people used to get their music the only way they could: by making it. On Sundays, small town America would gather in churches and living rooms and sing all day, in huge choirs of people, most of whom were trained in music only in that they did this every damned week. Different singers conducted each song, so that there was no one leader, and everyone lifted their voices as much as they possibly could, whether those voices were rhapsodic and pure, or pop-eyed and scraggly. You may note that I am throwing some seriously drippy nostalgia at you, but Sacred Harp music, named after a term for the human voice which doubles as the title of a major songbook from the 1840s, is hard to resist as a metaphor for the good old American spirit, with it’s fierce democratic methods and community base. It also happens to be incredibly powerful and lovely, though it was never intended for a non-participating audience. There’s nothing quite like hearing all those unabashed voices in unison. It takes a strange sort of idealism to think of taking this method and applying it to contemporary indie rock, and that should tell you something about Dan Wholey.
The now-defunct Earth People Orchestra was the project in question, and the band was fairly beloved around Boston during its brief life. Initially conceived of as a kind of open-source band in which members could freely come and go and anyone could participate, EPO drew its strength from Wholey’s distinctive, cutting voice and smart songwriting, as well as the Sacred Harp style vocal harmonies. Dreamy, shuffling beats underscored the chorus of voices singing gently optimistic lyrics like “I hear if you believe it you can drive out ocean tides,” padded underneath with harmonium and organ drones and garnished with tinkling glockenspiels. The effect was lovely, but this being the 2000s and not the 1840s, Wholey’s idealism dissolved under the weight of conflicting egos and practicalities (anyone who’s ever been in a band knows how hard it is to get three people to play a song in time, let alone fifteen). Says Wholey of his Earth People period, “this is sort of a cool idea on paper but once you do it for a while you realize that some people should not try to break the barrier between audience and performer even though it might be a cool thing to talk about after you smoke a bunch of weed. I did learn that you should only have two drummers if your band is being followed by tens of thousands of people tripping balls.”
The man is no stranger to dissolving bands, though: his three pre-EPO efforts, including Jackson Plastic, a power trio with future Saddle Creek signing Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson, all self-destructed with varying degrees of violence and hurt feelings, including one punch in the face (not thrown or received by Wholey, for the record) that fed the Boston indie rock gossip scene for weeks. So, he soldiered on, recording the music for various short films, including I Think We’re Alone Now, a documentary about horrifically obsessive fans of 1980s teen pop starlet Tiffany, and then producing six solo songs in only a few days, from the latter of which this digital single is culled. The style of the solo tracks varies widely, from long, crackling drones to piano ballads to lilting banjo tunes with electronic drums, and the only thread that weaves them all together is his voice, an unwavering tenor with a nasal edge that, along with lyrics about stained mountaintops, will surely bring the name Jeff Mangum to the tips of many journalistic fingers. Beyond that touchstone, though, Wholey’s voice is arguably better, slightly lower and filled out with a greater coarseness and depth. The best voices are not often the most purely beautiful, and Wholey, especially heard live, is a perfect example of how an imperfect sound can captivate completely.
A-side “Draindancer” bears some resemblance to Wholey’s Earth People style, with its slow shuddering beat and stringed drone, made by what sounds like a downtuned acoustic guitar being attacked with a cello bow, or maybe just a pick. The melody slowly winds its way down through the verses as if it’s too heavy to be carried, landing thickly on a few unexpected notes on the way, while the lyrics lean in a more nihilistic direction than previous material, with every image resolving in a negative direction (falcons fly away, juice drips down and flows away, nothing remains, etc.), perhaps reflecting a tempered idealism after the collapse of the EPO. The little melismatic flourish at the end of the word doubt is another little reminder of the power of the man’s voice, something that we can hope might come even more to the fore in future recordings.
“Tiny Coals” hearkens back to the power trio days of Jackson Plastic, stringing fuzzy guitar chords (again, hard not to think of Avery Island era Neutral Milk Hotel hearing the way Wholey’s voice rises over said guitars and rants about amniotic sacs, though there are certainly scads of other possible references) over some heavy, cantankerous drums, and keeping to the relatively slow tempos he favors. Again the lyrics are stark and persecuted and lonely, with “I lit a fire and fell asleep and it killed everyone I know,” being the main motif, and elsewhere squirrels devouring the narrator’s food and models of the Titanic being sunk. Still, in the end, he is the one who lit the fire, which suggests that bleak though his position is, it’s entirely his fault. The fraying of his voice during the last held “know” is a moment of near ugliness, of a man trying desperately to figure out what to do next.
Fittingly, Wholey’s musical future is uncertain at the moment. A pared down version of EPO is in the works, minus the ideology and half the band members, as well as a new power trio, and perhaps even some solo electronics. It’s not clear at all where he’ll wind up or what direction he’ll be heading in. The one thing you can count on though, is the presence of that voice, roaring out the melodies with a bluntness that might call to mind the days when singing belonged to everyone.