Before we begin this week’s review, a reminder: Yesterday we launched Save Stereogum: An ’00s Covers Comp. It’s a collection of over 40 all-new exclusive tracks from your favorite indie stars that we’re releasing as part of our new crowdfunding initiative that also offers perks like T-shirts, a Zoom partied DJ’d by your Stereogum staff, and even a personalized Number Ones column for big spenders. Our founder, Scott Lapatine, purchased Stereogum back from its parent company earlier this year, making us a fully independent media entity again. Things were already going to be tight even before coronavirus came along and depleted our ad revenue. We’d really like to continue as a destination for discovering and dissecting music, so I encourage you to donate to the fundraiser if you haven’t already. (And a big thank you goes out to the many generous souls who already have!)
OK, on to your regularly scheduled Album Of The Week…
In one of his most iconic songs, the pioneering Christian folk-rocker Larry Norman imagines the aftermath of the rapture. “I Wish We’d All Been Ready” depicts scenes of people being rescued out of a broken world and their bewildered friends and lovers beginning to comprehend what’s happened. “There’s no time to change your mind,” he sings, “the Son has come and you’ve been left behind.” It’s a sobering scenario — the ultimate FOMO experience, underlined by creeping dread about what might be next.
Little Kid’s album opener turns that disappointment on its head. In the harmonica-blaring ’60s Dylan sendup “I Thought That You’d Been Raptured,” singer-songwriter Kenny Boothby sings from the perspective of a man who returns home early from his factory job to find his wife’s clothes on the floor. Immediately he assumes she’s been swept away to heaven and begins puzzling out why he wasn’t taken too: “Haven’t been a perfect Christian/ But ain’t I prayed and been forgiven, Lord?” As he follows her trail of garments up to the bedroom, his heart sinks yet again. His wife hasn’t departed this world. She’s making love to another man, in full view of the crucifix on the wall: “And he looked down on the bed there/ At the tangle of the flesh there/ Where your souls were intermeshing/ As if you been brought to heaven/ With your dress still on the kitchen floor.”
“I Thought That You’d Been Raptured” is a glorious introduction to Transfiguration Highway, the Toronto band’s new album out this Friday. It establishes Boothby’s knack for poetic imagery, his playful yet melancholy fascination with religious themes, his lightly twangy tenor (think Jeremy Earl of Woods) vocalizing those lyrics over music that sounds like it could be playing off an old vinyl LP. Yet it’s only the beginning of the road. Over the course of 40 minutes, Transfiguration Highway voyages across decades of folksy indie and classic rock. Along the way, banjo and keyboard player Megan Lunn’s vocals join in alongside Boothby’s as their music morphs in and out of celestial forms — not unlike the mountaintop biblical story that lends the album its title, when Jesus gave his closest friends a momentary glimpse of his divine glory.
Speaking of that title, Boothby explains it vividly in the album’s promotional materials:
In my mind, the Transfiguration Highway is a road that runs from my hometown of Petrolia, through the small southern Ontario towns I grew up in, through to larger and larger Ontario cities, like London, until it reaches me here in Toronto. Along that path, there’s a movement from quiet to loud. From slow to fast. From God to godlessness. From unique and charming houses to mundane condos. The path then stretches on to the north and to the east to Marmora, a place I’ve never visited but one that I’ve become entranced by. I’ve come to view it as some kind of beckoning light further down the highway.
A folk-rock band with guy-girl vocals from just north of Michigan, weaving Christian mysticism into songs about the struggle for peace and dignity in a decaying society, sometimes with banjo? Little Kid probably grow weary of comparisons to early Sufjan Stevens, and naming their album after the Transfiguration isn’t going to slow those down. But if the Sufjan references are not entirely off-base, Transfiguration Highway finds Little Kid very much on their own trip, one that spans music history as it explores Boothby’s metaphysical aching. Beyond the Dylan-esque opener, there are traces of Sparklehorse and Elliott Smith’s downcast studio-pop, of weathered indie troubadours like Damien Jurado and Cass McCombs, of blog-championed late-aughts folk-pop from Loney Dear to Bon Iver. The influences mix and mingle in alluring ways, becoming the soundtrack for deeply human reflections occasionally tinged with the supernatural.
The title track builds up eerie vibes around a creeping bass groove as Boothby surveys an increasingly soulless Ontario. A hypnotic guitar riff spirals around distorted keyboard chords on “Thief On The Cross,” in which he transposes the narrative of a criminal executed alongside Jesus into the context of music-scene jealousy: “Praying you’ll remember me when you finally reach the entrance to eternity/ I played in that old three piece, we opened for thee way back in 2015.” The stunning piano-led slow groove “Losing” conjures the feeling of settling into a front porch chair at twilight to ponder your regrets by connecting the dots between Canadian roots-rock forebears like Neil Young and the Band and Little Kid contemporaries like Whitney and Field Report. “Really it’s amazing, I don’t know how you do it,” Boothby sings. “Never much for playing, but you always had a way with losing.”
He could easily be singing to himself. Often when people talk about bar bands, they envision the kind of hearty riff-rock the Hold Steady once reclaimed and reimagined. But there’s another strain of bar-rock that flourishes in college towns and metropolises across North America, an entire ecosystem operating in the shadow of NPR-friendly titans like Wilco and Bright Eyes. For years, bands like Southeast Engine, Beaten Awake, and Frontier Ruckus have been carving out thoughtful, artsy, country-tinged indie rock, exploring deep moods and big ideas beyond the outskirts of whatever music industry buzz epicenter is thriving at the time. Little Kid fit into that lineage as well; it’s easy to imagine them playing a life-changing set in some dive bar for about a dozen people on a Wednesday night and then returning to their day jobs or graduate studies the next morning.
Maybe Boothby doesn’t feel like he’s toiling away in obscurity — by signing to a label, hiring a publicist, and meeting their moment with a hell of an album, Little Kid will almost certainly enjoy their largest audience ever with Transfiguration Highway. Yet that blur of fleeting transcendence, longing, and resignation that animates so many rock-band underdog stories often courses through Boothby’s songs as well. So many of these new Little Kid tracks are parables about watching your hopes and dreams slip away and feeling powerless do anything about it, rendered with all the beauty and fragility of the human experience. They add up to an album that illuminates so many of the ways a person can feel left behind.
Transfiguration Highway is out 7/3 on Solitaire. Pre-order it here.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Brooklyn drill king Pop Smoke’s as-yet-unheard posthumous debut album Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon.
• Willie Nelson’s whopping 70th studio album First Rose Of Spring.
• Japanese metal gods Boris’ latest punishing riff monster NO.
• The Dalai Lama’s debut album Inner World.
• The Jam and the Style Council leader Paul Weller’s 15th solo album On Sunset.
• Beijing experimentalists Gong Gong Gong’s team-up with Anton Rothstein and Angel Wei Bernild, Rytme Og Drone III | 節奏與嗡鳴三.
• Dream Wife’s debut album So When You Gonna…
• Twin Peaks’ Side A EP.
• Pure Bathing Culture’s Corrido EP.