- Osage Orange, Snake Skin Chants
"Limitations often produce the best results because imagination and determination can surpass any shortfall and determine the way forward — always." Those were the words director Ridley Scott used in 2019 to praise the North Bergen High School drama club's scrappy yet effective stage production of his breakthrough film, Alien. In other words, give it everything you've got, parameters be damned.
After singer-songwriter Nick Varisano of Osage Orange broke his patella in a snowboarding accident, he couldn't play analog instruments while recuperating, so he shifted to synths and drum machines. His efforts to move forward despite his limitations resulted in a new album called Snake Skin Chants, which he recorded in Austin, Texas, with Roger Paul Mason, an old high school friend. Though the new album is cosmetically quite different from the dusty alt-folk heard on 2015's Souvenir Regrets (Varisano recorded it without longtime bandmates Jeremy Gantz and Dave Carlson), it retains the same somber mood and inquisitive outlook while adding some new elements.
According to Varisano, the wood of the Osage orange tree makes particularly good bows. A bowyer himself, he would know. He likens his tunes to arrows. If you're so inclined, imagine them slicing through the air to vanquish foes and pierce hearts.
Varisano calls Snake Skin Chants "electric desert folklore," an apt descriptor. It's mysterious in design. Disorienting guitars, shrouded in filters and effects, dance like the aurora borealis over cracked earth. Synths glisten against a stark backdrop like galaxies of opalescent pinpricks on a black velvet backdrop. Varisano's vocals are weary yet full of resolve.
"All I Need" opens the record with a heaviness that lingers throughout. It trudges with purpose toward an urgent chorus, swaddled in textured electric guitars and synth tones.
"Aster Mirror," as well as the later track "Lay Down Your Head," recall a bit of the Postal Service's twee-tronica magic. Varisano's voice isn't cloying like Ben Gibbard's, though he heavily processes his vocals on these tunes, adding a retro-futuristic vibe. I say "retro-futuristic" because the tools that allow for that kind of vocal augmentation and distortion, novel in the late 20th century, are now so ubiquitous that we hardly notice them anymore.
"Breaks Open Light" is a bit of an oddity for Osage Orange. The seven-minute instrumental track is pure electro soundscape, a sprawling web of synths twisting, blending, melding and unfurling in glossy sheets.
As an exercise in operating within constraints, Snake Skin Chants is a rousing success. Viewed beyond its origin story, it's also just a good record. Its catchy songs, such as the '80s industrial-lite "Desert Winds" and whirlwind electro-pop tune "Pantone," might not have come into existence if Varisano had been a little luckier that fateful day on the slopes.
Listen to Snake Skin Chants on Spotify.