Fall Music Preview, Part 2: Producer Congleton talks St. Vincent, Astronautalis

Hey grrl! Haven’t seen you since yesterday. Nice outfit; got a hot date tonight? … Mmmhm …

I continue my super-sized preview of upcoming North Texas releases (read Part 1 here) on what could be considered Super Tuesday for local-ish, left-of-center pop acts. In stores and online today, you can find new albums by Astronautalis, St. Vincent and Neon Indian, whose key players all paid substantial creative dues in our fair region.

St. Vincent’s third album, Strange Mercy, and Astronautalis’ fourth, This Is Our Science, were both recorded and engineered early this year by 34-year-old Dallas producer John Congleton at Oak Cliff’s Elmwood Recording. Also known for his freakily compelling stage persona as frontman of the beloved Dallas rock band the Paper Chase, Congleton has become quite the in-demand producer in the past decade. He’s helmed recordings by local stars (Sarah Jaffe, Mount Righteous) and several high-profile out-of-towners (Modest Mouse, the Walkmen, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah).

St. Vincent, of course, is the musical project of Annie Clark, a guitar-slinging vocalist and North Texas native who cut her teeth performing with Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens. All three of her solo records were made here, with Congleton at the boards. The two have enjoyed a creative love affair of sorts. When her last album – the Disney-score-influenced Actor – came out in 2009, Clark told me in an interview she works so well with Congleton that she thinks they should get married (Everybody!: Marry me John, marry me John, I’d be sooo good to you …).

I caught up with Congleton (pictured) by phone on Sunday, and he weighed in on his and Clark’s studio bond. “Annie and I kind of share the same sense of humor … I was in on [this new] record from the first note. It was completely a studio construct.”

With Strange Mercy, the producer and artist have put together a collection equally as odd and experimental as previous St. Vincent records. There’s a handful of faster-paced tunes bearing that fine balance of porcelain-perfect vocals and surprisingly raw guitar freak-outs. Clark always springs a nice bonus groove on you too, especially in singles “Surgeon” and “Cruel,” as well as the title track (which I’m not afraid to admit is my new damn jam).

“Some of the songs on that record, we must have done five, six, seven different ways,” Congleton told me.

“The song, ‘Surgeon,’ for example … we started off with it double-time. The tempo was only slightly faster but the melodies were double time. And we weren’t liking it. It felt too acrobatic or something. And I remember one morning I woke up, and it occurred to me that we should half-time it. Every song on that record was a total discovery. Almost like the Beatles would make a record or something. So one of these days, I’ll listen to those outtakes and have a good laugh.”

Astronautalis, a rapper-singer (real name Andy Bothwell) who started his career here in a blaze of freestyle-rap glory, is another act that’s come to evade record-rack-style classification. Says Congleton, “Andy listens to all types of music and is completely comfortable with genre-bending, but never does it in a way that seems phony. And no matter what he does, he still sounds like a hip-hop artist.”

Having previewed the new set, This Is Our Science, only a couple of times, I can at least attest that Bothwell’s rapped ’n’ sung verses here are his biggest and best-constructed yet. With the warmth of the live instrumentation carrying over from the last Congleton-produced album, Pomegranate, he brings in inspired collaborators like the Riverboat GamblersMike Wiebe (on the epic-sounding “Thomas Jefferson”) and Tegan and Sara’s Tegan Quin (on the head-bobber “Contrails”). Like I said, though, I need to give this thing more time, so I’ll yield the floor to Congleton:

Pomegranate had a sound that carried through it a real vibe. This one is not like that. Not that it doesn’t have a good vibe, but the songs are all over the map, taking you in different directions and emotions. … Beyond the idiom of hip-hop, it’s just a great songwriting project.”

Big day for Congleton, with those two albums and another from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah debuting. Understandably, the next chapter for his new band The Nighty Nite probably won’t start tomorrow. “The priority is just to finish a record, and once we get that done, things will gear up, I promise.”

And I’ve got a humble suggestion for the producer, who told me St. Vincent and Astronautalis only came in contact once at Elmwood during recording sessions “like a weird passing-ships-in-the-night thing.” Get these two together on a record! Now!

It’d be a mammoth, crazy-making undertaking to put together a Venn diagram of connections between North Texas musicians. So, while I’m on the six-degrees tip anyway, I should hip you to a project in the works by a Dallas rapper/producer who’s collaborated with the aforementioned Astronautalis.

Richard Escobedo, a.k.a. Picnictyme, most notably put his production chops to use as a member of the now-defunct Dallas rap trio P.P.T. These days he’s a member of Erykah Badu’s DJ collective the Cannabinoids, and he’s the producer behind When Pigs Fly, the excellent 2011 debut album by the local hip-hop crew A.Dd+.

Gotta say I’ve been pining for a solo release from Picnictyme. Not only are his beats uber-creative, but his flow and singing voice seem to hit the sweet spot for a headphone-head. So, what he told me when I hit him up by e-mail last week brought a cartoony smile.

“I’ve actually decided to record my first record, and am about halfway in,” Picnictyme wrote. “Looking for a November/early December release. Its gonna be called :: sea monsters :: . Sort of a concept album that’s rich with heartbreak love songs.”

Naturally, I followed up by asking him more about the new album’s sound. Might he be aiming for, say, a Prince-ly vibe?

He answers: “Haha, I’ve been heavily influenced for years by Andre 3000s The Love Below album. That album changed my whole perspective at one point. Most recently, I’m influenced by groups like Little Dragon, Boom Clap Bachelors. Trynna merge that sound. My ex-girlfriends will not like this record, lol. I’m mostly singing on it with a couple raps, and a few special guests.”

He had me at Little Dragon.

Tomorrow’s the last day of my intensive music-previewing (until next week’s regular column), and I’ll attack Part 3 quick-hit style. So many albums to discuss. Prepare to be overwhelmed.

But back to today, briefly: Alan Palomo (pictured), he who has fascinated EDM-loving DF-Dubbers to no end since 2007, is once again in “chillwave” mode with the sophomore album from his breakout band Neon Indian. My colleague Christopher Mosley will be checking in with more on Era Extraña, including a chat with two of Palomo’s Denton-rooted bandmates. He’ll also preview Neon Indian’s Thursday Wednesday appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (huzzah!).

In anticipation, I’ll leave you with my new favorite track off Era Extraña, “Halogen (I Could Be a Shadow).” (Listen here) Without a single “critic” word left in my pea brain, I’ll just call it delicious. You’ll know what I mean when Palomo hits that trippy “And every time I fol-loo-oow” chorus. Pop’s past and future, bubbling up together.

Until tomorrow …


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