Album Review: Letts ‘Hold Fast’

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Hold Fast Letts

Christian Letts, one of the twelve crusty collaborators associated with California indie-folk wonderband Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, recently got to know famed Brit-folk crooner and banjo thumper, Marcus Mumford, while on tour as an opener for the Mumford and Sons recent Railroad Revival Tour. Mumford must have had a tough time getting to know each member of Edward Sharpe’s ragtag duodecet considering his rigorous schedule of mass media appearances and obligations, but apparently Letts and Mumford struck up an uncanny friendship (even having been sighted at a Knicks game together). It’s easy to imagine the two, one a perennial Californian, the other a Londoner, mutually admiring each other’s stringed instruments, fedoras, and vests; appreciating the finer things in life together as afforded by the royalties from respectively huge international hit songs. So it’s no surprise at all that Letts, with earnest ambition, asked his Grammy-winning buddy to produce his debut solo LP, and in an earnest desire to gain some respect from anyone who actually listens to folk music, Mumford agreed.

But before we reflect on what happened, let’s note what could have been.

In contrast to the pretension and near megalomania of Edward Sharpe’s frontman, Alex Ebert, Christian Lett’s songs are humble efforts; sometimes straightforward and other times more skewed towards the acid-trip lyricism of the Magnetic Zeroes. Letts’ lyrics and caramel-flavored vocals float softly and earnestly, channeling The National’s Matt Berninger mixed with a little bit of Devendra Banhart, and a dash of The Tallest Man on Earth.  In the first words of his understated opening track, “The Keeper”, he muses I got a demon in me child/ It runs deep/ It drags its feet to change the dial/ its mine to keep and sparks a resonant theme of inner turmoil, and a familiar form of self-inflicted suffering.  Letts’ seems to be reflecting on how we are all creatures of habit, resistant to change even when we know it could be liberating. Progress is never easy, but if we acknowledge our fears and failings, “changing the dial” becomes a possibility even through our inner demons and our “dragging feet”.

And this is what happened.

The opening track, in its understated simplicity, is the only track on the album that isn’t affected by the overproduction of Marcus Mumford’s clean studio shine. Maybe it’s a sign of professionalism or marketability in today’s music scene, but these songs deserve a more traditional production value. They are folk songs, produced with a pop-schmaltz that induces a stomachache. Track 3, “The Oath” is basically a Mumford and Sons track complete with doubled lead vocals, that horrible downbeat kick drum thump in EVERY Mumford song, banjo rolls, fiddle shuffles, spacious over-reverbed harmonies, and background “OHHHHH-OOHH’s”. The tracks “Emeralds” and “Copper Bells” also suffer from the same thump-thump affliction, and the penultimate track “Twenty Seven Arrows” suffers from an extended waltz jam featuring what sound like bad 90’s MIDI horns, and an attempt at subtle synthesizers that only adds to the whole overstated mess.

Tracks like the short but sweet “Skipping Stones”, “La Mer”, and “Charles De Gaulle” are redeemable in that they showcase Christian Lett’s affinity for tasteful fingerpicking combined with his unique lyricism. Lines like Oh la mer/tear died/by your side/ get swept up by rising tides and I’m carving/ my name upon these bones/with every rock dear/ I will build a better home rely on simple turns of phrase, clear imagery, and a dash of whimsy. He seems like the type of songwriter who gets a little stoned, strums some chords, and just sings with a microphone recording it, then goes back later and decides what’s good and what’s not. But in the end, the album suffers deeply from a condition that can only be defined as “Mumfordism”.  The whole effort seems an attempt to ride the coattails of fame, and gain exposure thereby. Christian Letts is a skilled songwriter and guitarist, to be sure, and while no one is judging him for the company he keeps (well, maybe a little bit), hopefully for his next album the dude can realize that his songs call for less, not more.

-Jeb

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