Breakfast in Fur’s principal songwriter and producer, Dan Wolfe, is a heavy cat. Soft-spoken, slight of build, basketball-tall but not so inclined, his eyes seem to widen behind his spectacles (honest, they do) when you ask him a question, and his answers always betray that he was really thinking about it, really processing and not just reacting. There’s a sense of cool about him – not hipster cool, but the neurological cool of someone focused and reserved; it’s expressed in his low-key persona and in his (locally legendary) resolve to make music his own way and in his own sweet time.
There are a lot of heavy cats on the local music scene these days. They ring the rafters with the expressive power and soul of their singing. They possess a musicality so organic, so kinesthetic that they can hardly bump into a piece of wood without coaxing a beautiful sound out of it. Dan Wolfe is…not one of those guys, and he cuts an unlikely figure among them. His singing voice…well, it consigns him to the indie world, where shaky vulnerability is a plus; but he makes it work with style and without apology. His guitar-playing…well, after years of performing in foxhole conditions, it has actually gotten quite good – Super Effective, to borrow a term from Pokémon – but his nomination for the Central New York and Southern Tier Blues Preservation League Hall of Fame will be long in the coming, if you dig.
Wolfe’s (very real, very advanced) musical gifts are conceptual in nature. He is sonically savvy and hip to currents in 20th-century art and cinema, and it shows in his remarkable ear for textural layering and collage. While he is also a fine traditional songwriter, it is clear that he regards sound as a “thing,” a recording as a “special place that you go.” His talent belongs not to the domain of musical kinesthetics but to that of vision and aesthetic intent, which is not the same thing as taste. All the certified grads of every Jazz Studies program have learned taste (otherwise they wouldn’t get work), but very few will ever or could ever invent their own deeply coherent and enchanted musical world in the way that Dan Wolfe has with his band, Breakfast in Fur.
And those gifted players, those certified cats, they line up and take a number to play with guys like Dan Wolfe. Figure that one out for yourself.
About five or six years ago, Wolfe locked himself in a bedroom and recorded a pretty amazing six-song EP. Whether this bedroom was in Ithaca or in New Paltz is a subject of some confusion; but I am a New Paltz homer, so I am claiming it for us, like Oyster Bay’s much-disputed claim to the provenance of Billy Joel.
Wolfe made the eponymous Breakfast in Fur debut mostly by himself, and mostly with junk: Casio-grade mini-keyboards, plastic castanets, cheap laminate guitars and other rattling string instruments, Toys ’R Us discards, clacking things that he hit with other clacking things and lots of digital reverb and inside-the-box audio manipulation. And it was wonderful: a world apart. It featured a set of sturdy, sincere and unpretentious songs with strong earworm properties, but most of all it was a complete aesthetic vision; Breakfast in Fur was a “place” that you could only ever visit by listening to that record.
The EP made waves here and elsewhere and spawned a busy, touring live band that has gone through innumerable personnel changes over the years, but has always featured the core of Wolfe, keyboardist/vocalist Kaitlin Van Pelt and guitarist Mike Hollis. With ace drummer Chris Walker rounding out the stable current lineup, they have become a reliable, rocking live act fit for the clubs and do-it-yourself venues of urban hipster America. And while they have never really tried to recreate the insular acoustic quality of that debut EP live, everything that they have done has been “in the spirit” of it: intentionally naïve, ecstatic, enamored with soundmaking, oblivious to technique per se and wanting nothing but a little alien magic and catharsis for themselves and for their audience.
And they’ve been making another record, for a long time now, in various studios and at home – a composite of a record that involves contributions from all the layered strata of BiF alumni. There has been some production and engineering involvement from our heaviest studio heavies like Dean Jones, Kevin McMahon and Jamal Ruhe, but, Wolfe being Wolfe, this one is pretty much all his production handiwork as well. And in the years of its making, in the years of our waiting, they’ve gotten signed, too: to the prestigious indie label Bar/None Records, the original Hoboken label of 10,000 Maniacs and They Might Be Giants, among many others.
Flyaway Garden arrives on Bar/None Records this week. Worth the wait? Why, yes: The album is great, and the wait wasn’t so bad after all. What’s remarkable is that it feels so much like one uncompromised story and not a scattershot document of a protracted, disrupted, delayed and multi-location recording process. It is frontloaded with its most striking songs, ’cause that’s how you do it: the thudding rocker “Shape” with its impossibly catchy single melody, the velvety pop “Portrait,” the whispery mood piece “Whisper,” the stark and dark low-point anthem “Setting Stone.”
As Flyaway Garden progresses, it melts more and more into lovely sound-for-sound’s-sake experiments, electro-psychedelia and dwelling sonics. The pivotal point in the record, from song toward pure sound, is a long and truly bizarre cover of “Cripple Creek Ferry”: Neil Young by way of early Animal Collective. Following that is the Van Pelt-composed title track, an inward-gazing, wordless vocal meditation that, oddly, reminds me of the New Age jazz flautist Paul Horn’s Inside the Taj Mahal.
This band has always had a bit of magic about it, an identity and a likability that somehow manage to precede the music and enhance it. Their sound is inextricable from their mysteriously compelling branding and graphic design (mostly by the professional painter/designer Van Pelt, though Wolfe’s background is in art studies as well). The EP cover depicted a child (lost? abandoned?) in an animal costume, connecting image effortlessly with the music’s Lord of the Flies sense of decivilized and reinvented worlds. On Flyaway Garden’s cover is Van Pelt’s inexplicably moving portrait of the young Dan Wolfe.
And the music is very much what I would call visual-arts rock. It would be visual-arts rock even if it arrived in a plain white sleeve with the bare-bones data printed in Times New Roman. The featured sounds are palpable, relished and foregrounded as if they were objects in space. The counterpoint comes in musically decoupled layers of color, flowing in parallel rivers but disengaged from the interlocking jigsaws of standard rock arrangement (think of the Brian Eno aesthetic, or even our resident space-rock legends Mercury Rev). And it is this combination of crafty sonic artiness and an abiding, childlike love of simple song that really makes this stuff work. The solid, memorable songs peep through the smear, the tumult and the haze of the sound art in the most delightful way.
Breakfast in Fur celebrates the release of Flyway Garden locally at Snug Harbor in New Paltz on Friday, February 6 at 10:30 p.m. They will be joined by their old friends Shana Falana and Los Doggies. Snug Harbor is located at 38 Main Street in New Paltz. For more, visit https://breakfastinfur.com.
Breakfast in Fur/Shana Falana/Los Doggies, Friday, February 6, 10:30 p.m., Snug Harbor, 38 Main Street, New Paltz.