Musical Charis – Fool$ Gold Record Label: JMB Records
Release Date: October 20, 2012
“Tonight, for your listening enjoyment, we offer you another fantastical audio recording unlike any other you’ve heard on this earth before!” declares a jaunty announcer, opening California-based folk ensemble Musical Charis’ fourth release Fool$ Gold. Tough words to live up to, for sure, but the six (technically seven if you include that wack introduction) tracks on this release suggest a band deserving of them. Both the lyrics and music showcase an ensemble that is maturing admirably, not only thematically but also sonically.
“Fire On Ice”, as melancholy as it is, is the sound of a band that is tighter than ever: the guitar melodies that open the track are subdued but full of spirit, as are the interplay mumbles of “Here we go again” echoing through the track. The instrumentation on Fool$ Gold may be sparser than it was on their previous release, Ace of Space, but this time, it’s far more layered, showing the interaction of an ensemble rather than bolts and nuts. The dynamic control is also quite strong: the way the drums almost stutter on the chorus will make your heartbeat stutter as well, and it all leads to a relaxed, dreamy bridge section, though the melodies still inspire feelings of longing.
The charming, autumn-appropriate “Used To Be Cool” plays foil to the weightier “Fire On Ice”, but it also carries its themes: it’s a song about people evolving and changing from their experiences but sticking together all the same. Vocal interplay between male and female singers is nothing new, but the band finds a variety of ways to use it to its advantage: the interaction here sounds almost like multiple voices in one head, stepping back, pushing forward, hesitating for a second before reassuring themselves that things really will be fine. Even in the song’s cutesier moments (“Monkey see / monkey do” grates slightly no matter how many times I listen), it never loses its balance between hope and regret, and when it lets the voices and words get more raw, it’s surprisingly cutting.
“The Gift” is a standout, opening with a soothing introduction before blowing up into a chilling country-rock ballad. One advantage of an ensemble as large as Musical Charis is the sheer possibilities of the instrumentation, and size proves to be a boon here, showing just what this band is capable of with every member on the stage in overdrive. The track is a pleasing deviation for the band, very familiarly Musical Charis but utilizing their conventions to a darker, more melancholy end.
After “The Gift”, it’s nice to see a happier song, or at least a lighter one with the warm “Fortune Teller”. The theme of the song, growing older and waking up to reality, but the point is never pushed: the lyrics have a poetic beauty, mysterious enough to turn over in your head yet sincere enough to be affecting at face value. “Catwalk” opens with a surprising drum and synth breakdown at the beginning before settling into a more comfortable surf rock sound. Though familiar, it is undeniable, utiziling simple and catchy vocal hooks and soaring vocal interplay.
Closer “Sunlight Stalker” is a perfect ending to Fool$ Gold: it may be fairly downtempo, but damn, it’s gorgeous. The production smudges the sound beautifully, making everything sound otherworldly—before the floor falls out underneath the track, leaving nothing but a guitar and distant vocal shouts in the background. In that one reveal, it unearths more pain and emotion than most of their contemporaries can hope to cram into an entire song. “The earth begins to shake,” somebody shouts, complemented by percussion that sounds like it’ll shatter the earth to pieces. We also get a lovely guitar interlude near the ending that evokes the barren melancholy of acoustic duo The Books, one last surprise to close out a EP full of them.
I suppose I could end this review with an easy, all-sizes-fit adjective like “brilliant”, “innovative”, or “genius”, but frankly, those words don't capture what Musical Charis is interested in. Innovation doesn’t come by as often as hyperbolic Internet dilettantes (just a bit of self-depreciation there), and even when it does, it doesn’t spring out of some creative uterus, ready to take on the world. What Musical Charis does best, in my opinion, is more along the lines of reinvention: they may not be rewriting the book of musical theory, but in everything they do, they demonstrate both an impressive knowledge of music and a genuine love for it, taking tested-and-true tropes of the various genres they crib from and rewriting them so cleverly and sincerely that they seem new. And when it comes to music, doesn’t love matter more?