Vermont songsmith Forrest Mulerath seems like the kind of guy who's more comfortable in the woods than on the streets. He and his loose assembly of musician pals recorded Songs of Praise & Joy "in a tiny house that sits along the Mad River in Moretown," according to the album's liner notes. Then again, "liner notes" might not be the right words to describe blue construction paper sprinkled with craft-store glitter.
The disc's homemade packaging perfectly illustrates the group's overall aesthetic. It's clear from opening cut, "First Birth," - which is built on celestial drone, fingerpicked guitar and what sounds like a gurgling brook - that this is not your average indie-pop release.
Mulerath and co. bear some similarities to such freaky acts as Animal Collective and Akron/Family. There's an amorphous quality to many of the songs - they start in one spot and just kind of wind up somewhere of their own haphazard accord. The vocals take some getting used to, however. Mulerath sings in a quavering baritone that ignores common rules of key and pitch. Then there's his bizarre lyrics, which are equal parts engaging and off-putting. "Undressing yourself in the middle of town / Feels so right / Spitting your food out / Into your mother's eyes," he sings on "Praise for Infant Joy."
Beauty and ugliness are compatriots on this record. The former gets its due on the gorgeous "Don't Wake the Purring Kitty," which features exquisite cello and lovely piano melodies. When a march-style snare drum appears mid-song, it becomes almost aristocratic.
On "The Businessman," Mulerath sings in a low-toned croon about the mercilessness of progress. Packed with a small orchestra of instruments, including banjo, xylophone and thunderous percussion, the song feels utterly claustrophobic. Such dense layering nicely complements the urgent, accusatory vocals.
Equally dark is "Walk Into the Woods and Stay There," in which everything but a frenzied, strummed guitar is blurred into a charcoal smudge of sound. That is, until the tune's unexpectedly delicate finale.
"Super Jesus Sunshine Songs" is a group-oriented spiritual, the kind of thing they might've sung at the Jonestown compound before the beverage cart arrived. "I wanna stay here forever," the band intones, choral-style. It's every bit as creepy as you might imagine.
Songs of Praise & Joy is one of the strangest - and most strangely compelling - local discs I've heard in some time. If you feel like tracking it down, head to www.LittleWoodenMen.org. Or maybe just send a smoke signal.