Part Timer: Real To Reel
Lost Tribe Sound

Upward Arrows: Upward Arrows
Under The Spire

Real To Reel is the sound of John McCaffrey's Part Timer project coming fully into its own and reaching a new-found level of finesse. The album is filled with mesmerizing pastoral-folk songs that are as beautiful as they are polished, and is a collection refreshingly free of overstatement that offers an antidote to the stress-inducing struggles of so-called ‘normal' life. McCaffrey, a Northern Englander currently based in Melbourne, Australia who's issued material on Moteer and Flau (among others), sprinkles his tracks with acoustic guitars, organ, melodica, tin flute, and glockenspiel, and speckles them with the rustle of an occasional field recording and ambient-electronic flourish.The songs are generally pastoral, of course, but also serene, introspective, and ballad-like more often than not. Electronics and field recordings are used extensively but integrated subtly, more as atmospheric enhancement and evocators of memory and association than as imposing foreground elements.

Guests Kansas-based cellist Aaron Martin, Melbourne singer and harpist Heidi Elva, John's wife Danielle, and singer Nicola Hodgkinson make significant contributions to the material. Danielle graces “The Distance Between One” with her dulcet whisper, the vocal's soothing quality a natural complement to her husband's peaceful instrumental musings. The mournful ballad “Unfound” is distinguished by the singing and harp playing of Elva and Martin's cello playing, while “Where We Used To Go” is elevated by both Nicola Hodgkinson's honey-dipped vocal and the cry of Martin's cello. One might find oneself reminded of Mazzy Star when Elva's voice faintly murmurs during “The Runner” in a dreamy ballad whose alluring potency is enhanced by the soothing instrumental bed McCaffrey prepares for it. Though the vocal pieces stand out, the instrumentals are strong too. Adrift on a soft blanket of static, “Suspended Belief” lulls the listener into a state of calm when its acoustic guitar shadings glide across the song's gentle rhythmic surf, and “Campsite Sundown” is memorable too for its front-line of melodica and acoustic guitar playing. What recommends Real To Reel most, however, is McCaffrey's decision to focus on pieces that are song-like in structure and length. The album's thirteen settings are electroacoustic by design yet as accessible as so-called experimental music could be, something that's helped along considerably by the generous helping of vocal-based pieces. To these ears, Real to Reel sounds like the most perfectly realized Part Timer statement to date.

McCaffrey also checks in with a self-titled album under the new guise Upward Arrows. The album's ten untitled tracks (arrowheads of increasing number are used to identify the different pieces) were created especially with the Under The Spire imprint in mind, hence the moniker choice, which alludes to church spires scattered about the globe, all of which point upwards like arrows aimed at the sky. That McCaffrey elected not to release the material under the Part Timer name is telling, as the Upward Arrows material, while still retaining noticeable connections to the sound and style associated with his better-known alias, points in a slightly more experimental direction. The Upward Arrows tracks are certainly captivating. In many tracks, strings, acoustic guitars, and pianos drift through reverberant pools of static and thrum, and at times push their way to the forefront of hazy clouds of static (William Ryan Fritch and the Fourplay String Quartet are cited as sound sources). Sometimes augmented by field recordings and peppered with treated voice snippets and electronics, the pieces are by turns soothing, lush, bucolic, and ethereal. McCaffrey's low-pitched voice resounds during the third track, but Upward Arrows otherwise eschews vocalizing of the kind heard on Real to Reel. The emphasis is less on song form and more on ambient-drone explorations (in terms of song length, concision is the norm in both cases, however), and the material exudes a more overtly classically tinged character, though vestiges of his electroacoustic Part Timer persona seep into the material too (armed with an acoustic guitar front-line and subtle rhythm presence, the final track is so similar in style it could easily pass for a Real to Reel track). As a result, the Upward Arrows material, while different enough from the prototypical Part Timer piece, isn't so different that devotees of the latter should find the former off-putting. If anything, it feels like a natural extension of the Part Timer sound into relatively new territory.

December 2010