John Andrews & The Yawns Bit by the Fang
(Woodsist – April 14, 2015)
Review by Rob Bockman
Humans are creatures of reference; we have to be, as otherwise we’d have died out long ago. We’re guaranteed to construct schema, whether it’s “red berries are probably worth avoiding” or “hey, this album kind of sounds like [REFERENCE POINT].” So, it’s a poor album that doesn’t reveal influences when you pan for them, but ideally, you like it take a few listens before it feels overly familiar. On his first solo album, erstwhile Woods and Quilt member John Andrews and his rotating (described as “imaginary”) back-up band, the Yawns, hits a bit too close to a rote mundanity, but it feels deliberate and intentionally worn-out, torpor as a trope. The immediate radarblips include Father John Misty—but where Misty takes his cues from the polished pop of Fleetwood Mac and pre-arena Eagles, Andrews is far more concerned with the gnarlwood Americana of The Band and Southern rock—and Chad van Gaalen’s recent output, specifically Shrink Dust. It’s all very ready-made and modular, free to slot into your rotation right between Ty Seagall and Kurt Vile, with similarly appealing rough edges limning careful craftsmanship. Where some post-millennial uptempo folk-rockers come bagged down with a loose-limbed gait from hitting the Pavement too hard, Bit by the Fang’s primary affectation is the pseudo-ironic-sincere plonking Texas barrelhouse piano and undercranked warbles and whammy that only serves to undercut the strength of Andrews’ songwriting and his dedication to his sunny-eyed and dark-edged aesthetic.
With a strong start in “Dont Spook the Horses,” a well-lit showcase of Andrews’ talents, the album makes its statement early, but never does much to develop them—all of the elements of the record, everything the Yawns bring to the table, are right there, and will only be reshuffled through the course of the album. Bit by the Fang is pleasant, certainly, but it never pushes for anything greater, content to build elaborate but wispy melodies with Andrews’ vocals buried enough in the mix to not catch any lyrics except the occasionally striking line. There’s an intriguing alt-country inflection to Bit by the Fang, especially in the fiddle and sparse piano of “Hear Me Out,” which provides an solid contrast to Andrews’ croaky voice, and at times the record recalls the major touchpoints of that genre, as in “Quitting the Circus,” whose simple structure smacks of Anodyne-era Uncle Tupelo. Indeed, throughout the album, there’s a longing for a simpler, slower life, whether it’s thematic, as in the gentle but barbed “Pennsylvania,” with its references to the Amish, or in the several tracks that use distorted production (“Bit By the Fang,” “Hear Me Out”) as a kind of stand-in for degenerating physicality, calling to mind heatwarped tapes and concave records. While Bit by the Fang doesn’t do much to synthesize something new out of these familiar elements, it’s still worth tracking on days like these, when the staggering heat is too overwhelming and cooler days seem impossibly distant.
Tracks to Watch: “Hear Me Out,” “Quitting the Circus,” “Pennsylvania,” “Bit By the Fang”
Tracks to Skip: “No Gun,” “Trouble (Yapes),” “Peace of Mind,” “Judy & Judy”