It was easy to believe that Langhorne Slim's earlier recordings were the fruits of brief, buoyant bursts in the studio, because that's what they sounded like. His new album, Be Set Free, is of a different breed. Thanks to the Decemberists' Chris Funk (who produced it), it's considerably embellished, softened around the edges by wafting strings and burnished horns.
But Slim—who isn't at all the grizzled old bluesman his stage name suggests, but a wild, warmhearted folk-punk frontman, christened Sean Scolnick by birth, just shy of 30 and beloved by a legion of hipster blogs—was the biggest source of change in the music's energy, emotion and polish. Almost half of the songs he wrote for the new album unfold in languid, rolling 3/4 time; some, like the title track, are would-be anthems of uplift, some, like the blue country song "So Glad I'm Coming Home," are admissions of road-weariness and—most strikingly—some are slow-burning numbers that bear a lot more in common with '60s soul and pop than anything that could accurately be called "folk."
Slim's bread and butter has been gleeful, breakneck romps, and he says he hadn't really intended to alter his songwriting so significantly. "I had thought that I wanted to, and that I should be, making a sort of upbeat, dancier kind of record," Slim says from a tour van somewhere in Kansas. "And those weren't the songs that came out." (At least, not for the most part—one new song, the piano boogie "Cinderella," is raucous by anybody's standards.)
It could be that a touch of the soul revival rubbed off on him or that the year's worth of life and touring experiences he'd accumulated since his self-titled album convinced him to build up more dramatically to those big musical moments. He ventures a couple of guesses: "Well, one thing that I think changed some of my songwriting is that there was a piano, an old piano, in this house that I was living in and I started for the first time writing songs on the piano." Or, "Lack of taking drugs might have had something to do with it."
But more important to Slim were the implications of those changes. "I mean, I felt nervous about it," he says. "To say that I don't care what people say, that's a lie.... I do care. At the same time...if you start doing things because that's what you feel like the people that are your fans or whatever, that that's what they want and that's the only reason you're doing it, that's a dangerous place to find yourself. So I was glad that I had some people around me that when I expressed this nervousness or was like, 'Shoot, man, these are the kinds of songs that I'm writing.... This might take some people by surprise.' Thankfully I had some people that said, 'Yeah, well, that's fine. Just do what you have to do.' "
"You can't do any of this stuff because that's what you think other people want you to do, I guess that's what I'm trying to say," he adds, concluding a confession that's nice to hear from an independent musician, who's not supposed to care about such things.
Slim has always put spirit into his singing. Whether it was venturing into soul music—with its tradition of great, expressive vocalists—taking a more meticulous recording approach or something else entirely that inspired him, this time he worked to channel the verve. During "For a Little While"—one of the albums finer moments—he gets the best of both worlds, mustering a powerful, pleading vocal performance and erupting with the band into a double-time thrash mid-song. Says Slim, "I think that for singing, I tried more on this one than others to sound... I wanted to be heard as a good singer."
"I love the smell of napalm in the morning...wait, what? That's not napalm??!"
This is my baby, there are many like it, but this one is mine
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