On Americanfilmhistory’s debut release The Grizzliest Thing I Know, the prolific and ambitious songwriter Frank McGinnis delivers what can only be described as a folk record, though it is a kind of folk record that will likely estrange, enrage or terrify fans of banjos, universal truth and fedoras. It is polluted folk, folk damaged in transit and snuck across guarded borders, surreal confessional folk that had to wriggle and waft its way through multiple levels of radio interference, interdimensional jitter and warping on its way from the unconscious mind to Bandcamp.
Twenty-six disturbed and remote minutes of self-sullied beauty are this record: assured and articulate folk/pop melodies from a guy who has written more than a few, filtered aggressively and positioned in an obscure, not very comforting reverb-world, surrounded by blooming synthesizer blobs, astronaut nausea and moon waves. The visually evocative sound design – elliptical, slow and creeping – feels like a sonic metaphor for the quarantined and censored parts of the mind and heart that are here sort-of-almost allowed to speak.
On this anonymously released project, McGinniss playfully refers to himself as hewhomustnotbenamed, and these tunes – wrenching breakup songs, at the end of the day – might as well be called thosethingsthatshallnotbesaid. Their raw, emotional messages do arrive intact, but deeply altered by dream logic and the impurities and anomalies of deep image translation.
The Grizzliest Thing I Know is savvy in its structure and its emotional progression. Seated right in its obscure middle, like an oasis, is the five-plus-minute gem of a dream pop tune “:the part where I go missing,” which features a) the album’s only proper drumbeat, b) a strange and lovely dual guitar solo right out of the Tweedy/Cline catalogue and c) a faux thematic resolution: a closing line of such stunning clarity and finality that you will take the bait, even though you should know better: “ i will walk in some direction/only carrying sad clichés and the clothes that i wore that day/only miss me if you’re stupid/ let me be a collection of stories you’ll always love.” Fool’s gold it is, though; we descend immediately back into the murk and obscurity for a few more tracks, because this breakup story, ultimately, is not about resolution, wisdom attained and peace of mind.
McGinnis is best-known around here as the charismatic main dude in such popular emo/punk/indie rock outfits as Frankie and His Fingers (rechristened By Land or Sea) and Time Travels. The man knows how to rock a basement, but Americanfilmhistory is not the first evidence of a conceptual ambition beyond the scope of guitar pop (he has composed and staged a full-length work of musical theater, for example). This strategy of smeared bedroom pop, long-distance folk and polluted prettiness is hardly novel anymore, so it all comes down to the imagination of the execution and to the quality of the tunes that are being so (mis)treated.
Americanfilmhistory scores on all these counts. It is defiantly not-for-everyone, but it is an immersive, lovely and upsetting treat from a talented cat. Try it out at https://americanfilmhistory.bandcamp.com.
One question: how will McGinnis handle this material live? I can barely imagine. Find out on Friday, January 23 when Americanfilmhistory performs at BSP in Kingston, along with MSL and Pecas.
Americanfilmhistory, Pecas & MSL, Friday, January 23, 8:30 p.m., $6, 18+, BSP, 323 Wall Street, Kingston; www.bspkingston.com.