(Angioplasty Records, cassette)
Bleating Heart, the sophomore release from Burlington trio Paper Castles, is presented in a wholly unassuming DIY package. The cassette’s sleeve — yep, cassette — is a plain, Xerox-y alphabet soup of fragmented words, mostly illegible except for the band’s name, which stands out in a ghostly typewriter font. There is no track listing, no liner notes, nothing but a series of framed geese and the Angioplasty Records logo inside. One has to wonder if this kitsch is purposeful or if the exterior betrays the album as tacky and contrived.
It turns out it’s appropriate that the new Paper Castles album has been released on a medium as flawed as the cassette tape. Imperfection is a theme in Paddy Reagan’s music. From the disappointment in fairy tales that were never true to begin with to the complexities of personal relationships, Reagan travels through anxiety, adolescence and the struggle toward maturity on Bleating Heart.
Reagan’s signature slow, deliberately thin guitar dominates his songs. His voice is austere, stripped down and cavernous. Like Okkervil River’s Will Sheff, Reagan drags out the verses, pulling his voice through each song like a child drags a teddy bear down a long hallway. A solitary glockenspiel reinforces that notion of innocence throughout the album, as if to say, “This is my violated childhood trust.” The songs are like wide, empty spaces. That is, until erratic drums break out.
Where Reagan’s guitar and voice embody loneliness and contemplation — not unlike Tom Brosseau’s Empty Houses Are Lonely — Peter Negroponte’s percussion is a violent explosion of emotion. The subdued soundscape is turned over by a tornado of percussion. But Ian Kovac’s bass brings security and confidence to the album. After the storm of chaos and cacophony, his low, bowed notes offer solid ground amid an uneasy sonic landscape.
The first track, “At Night,” comes in like a lullaby with a simple piano and slow guitar. The track is nostalgic and unsettling, like the late-afternoon groaning of an old house. Some songs are painfully slow, like “O’ Brother.” It’s a struggle to listen through the piece, as it addresses familial relationships, love, war and suffering through sustained notes and bending discord. If the album is a sunless landscape with a lingering cloud of weakness and neglect, then “Call It Off” is a break in the clouds. A synthy organ evokes the feel of 1970s lounge music.
Though there are sonic differences among the tracks on Bleating Heart, the collection is still held together by a common thread. Reagan works through a coming-of-age process, awakening from sleepiness, struggling through dissonance and, finally, finding resolution. As its packaging suggests, Bleating Heart is imperfect. But therein lies its humble beauty: It is flawed and real.