If it hasn’t already been banished to the netherworld, the new album from Tiny Empires should effectively blow up the ghost of O Pioneers!!! and free Eric Solomon from its shackles.
Long-time readers will know his work well. He’s a unique singer and songwriter who has been there when I’ve needed him for about eight years now. He also had what seemed like a never-ending streak of bad luck following him around constantly; it seemed like every year he was replacing his entire band, fate resigning him to deal with a revolving cast of characters that simply couldn’t stay the same for any length of time.
After the dissolution of the OP!!! brand, he embraced the black cloud that seemed to be hanging over his head. He describes his “new” band, Tiny Empires, with monikers like “melodic doom” and “swamp rock.” It’s worlds apart from the frantic chords and non-stop, plaintive wailing that marked his previous career.
Of course, that career wasn’t entirely static. Solomon’s writing was getting more layered, more exploratory towards the end of OP!!!. His association with his current band seems to have propelled him leaps and bounds beyond even that work. That much was apparent from Tiny Empires’ first release, a split single with Tigers Jaw that I wrote about rather favourably here. Some might say gushed, even.
What struck me about that song/side was the contrast, the caution, the patience of the piece overall. In a shrewd move, the band turns even that on its head from the opening track. “Wide Open Spaces” is a slow number, the muted electric guitar strumming and softly-sung vocals of its opening about as far from anything in the OP!!! catalogue. The chorus explodes with thick, aggressive power chords and gruff, guttural singing, only to give way to a gently-jarring keyboard bridge from straight out of left field.
The aggression, combined with the riffing on follow-up track “What’s The Plan, Phil?” suggest that Solomon is comfortable with shades of his former self appearing in Tiny Empires’ songs. The latter song actually isn’t too drastically removed from the prior band’s final days when Solomon was transitioning into the six-piece mass band that Tiny Empires has become. The layered backing vocals in the chorus, however, is a trick he hasn’t managed before (at least, not outside the few recorded minutes when OP!!! was him singing in front of one of Junior Battles’ poppiest arrangements). Lest anyone worry that his worldview has changed, Solomon also offers a lyrical tweak on a famous Kurt Vonnegut quote from Slaughterhouse-Five: “Everything is broken and nothing really hurts.” That opening salvo headlines a song about the agony of aging. “Watch me fall apart/watch me break down/watch my bones crumble now,” he sings, the vigor and intensity of his nearly-screamed vocals belying the sentiment.
“Just Imagine,” previously released as a digital teaser single on Bandcamp, is a bit of an outlier. Something in the verse guitar riff and the distant, distorted vocals and Bryon’s vocal melody is reminiscent of 90s alt-rock; there’s an association I can’t quite place, but it calls to mind maybe some brooding Nine Inch Nails after a fashion. Maybe Filter? There’s definitely a heavy dose of early Small Brown Boke in the mix as well. The layers of distortion on the non-chorus build-ups create a fuzzy pastiche that’s both icy and carries the warmth of familiarity. I get the same sense from “Tired Hearts and Livers,” especially from its alternating pace, the skittering drum beat that comes and goes as it pleases, and the constantly-shifting guitar tones. I know there was a bit of 90s revival on Chris Wollard’s first solo album but maybe we should be seeing more of that if songs like this are the result.
The highlight of the record is “Air Conditioning, Full Blast,” where what is arguably Solomon’s most vengeful lyric yet is fully-negated by an incredible arrangement. “When I’m angry I’m going to sneak into your house and steal your air conditioning unit. Steal it right from your wall and watch you sweat, because I bet you’d be miserable…just like me.” The way his arid singing voice extends the syllables of “miserable” is so perfect; you can picture the mask of his pessimism just starting to crack from the gleeful thought. When the extended chorus breaks in towards the song’s end with its harmonics and plucked high guitar notes, giving way to those final gentle keyboard notes your melodic sensibilities just might be overwhelmed entirely.
And then after all that we’re left with what I can only assume makes up the b-side of the LP: another marathon 10-minute song suite dubbed “Blurry Photos, Dead Leaves, Decomposed.” Suffice it to say that this composition builds on every single element that comes before, maybe even adding a few more elements (handclaps! How I’ve missed you!). Unfortunately, some passages of atonal, unchanging guitar riffing leave a sour taste in the melodic centers of my brain; swapping the last two songs on the record might have made for a cleaner, more aurally pleasing ending.
Regardless, this is a collection of loud, unabashed guitar rock that strives to be a little bit of everything and actually succeeds. “Maybe I don’t have the best intentions,” Solomon sings on “Air Conditioning, Full Blast,” adding, “but right now I just don’t care. Maybe someday, somehow, it comes back to me.”
Sorry pal; I don’t buy that for a second. This group of self-described “older men” have challenged themselves to come up with a sound that—despite Solomon’s lyrical insistence—hinges on sheer passion and more than a little ambition. When he sang on the group’s first single about rejecting the past-due ethos of the punk rock scene it wasn’t just window dressing; Solomon and his band have set themselves free from any constraints and the results are simply phenomenal.