[Album Review] Slight Birching- Cultural Envelope
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by Mark Anthony Brennan
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Release Date: August 12th, 2014
Label: Independent

Sean Travis Ramsay’s (a.k.a. Slight Birching) vocalization on ‘Cultural Envelope’ is often closer to spoken word than true singing, and even when he does actually sing he does so with such an idiosyncratic quaver that it serves to underscore the very personal nature of this music. He comes across as a genuinely friendly guy who is extending you an individual invitation to share in his musical world of indie folk musings, swooning pedal guitar, gentle acoustic guitar picking, delicate synth touches and the odd surprise (such as the trumpet work of Joseph Hirabayashi on the title track).

 

Admittedly, this is not an album that you fall for right away. At first blush there seems to be too much empty space, pointless guitar noodling and obscure lyrics. But if you give it a few spins you come to appreciate its subtle beauty. You begin to discern texture in those extended passages of synthesizer music, and realize that they are being used in the same way that an artist uses space on his canvas, i.e. to provide a contextual framework for the areas of more detail (the track “Perplexion/Perception” is a prime example). These areas of detail can range from simple brush-strokes (the afore-mentioned guitar noodling) to patterns of complexity (lyrically) that you may never be able to unravel but whose form you can admire nevertheless.

Ramsay’s penchant for eschewing conventional song structures can be off-putting at first but it actually helps in drawing attention to the subtleties in the record’s ebbs and flows. Then again, when a song has anything vaguely resembling a normal composition it really pops, like the record’s unlikely ‘hit’ “Currency” or the off-key “Less Night Lights”, in which Ramsay laments the wastefulness of an alcoholic life.

It is somewhat ironic that the title song “Cultural Envelope” has a childlike simplicity to it when in fact it is here that Ramsay delves most deeply into the album’s central theme, i.e. our species’ preoccupation with creating complex structures, systems and beliefs that we delude ourselves into thinking separate us from the natural world. “Always looking inward,” he sings, “never looking out/We can make mirrors/that reflect ourselves.” 

This is not a traditional album so you have to spend some time with it to get past your expectations of conventionality. That is not to say that it is demanding — it isn’t a struggle. Just as it ultimately takes no exertion to realize that we are an integral part of nature, you simply have to let things go and let it be: “Bend your heart to the world.”