Steven Mackey; guitar
Mark Haanstra: electric bass
Jason Treuting: drums/percussion
In the booklet that accompanies the debut release from Big Farm, that includes Rinde Eckert (voice), Mark Haanstra (electric bass), Steve Mackey (guitar), and Jason Treuting (drums), there is a sort of artistic statement, which reads:
Big Farm is a place where serious counterpoint can meet burlesque, earnestness meet abandon; a place where they can kick it or take it to tea, reflect, attack, mourn, dance, pray, or mock with ease or determination, joy or fervor, using any and all means necessary. This world is a big farm–lots of different crops, changing weather, livestock, and a duck pond for good measure.
After a few listens, I would expand that statement to a safari-style farm, adding a giraffe, a tiger or two, and maybe even throwing some exotic underwater creatures into that duck pond. The mission of the group revolves around expressive freedom for each artist, and as a result, “eclectic” would be an understatement. The album has an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink feel—but with classically trained composers at the helm, good spacial relations replace the sense of chaos that statement might imply. Indeed, each of the nine songs is rigorously constructed, often with gobs of musical information packed into relatively small spaces.
A prog-rock sound serves as the thread connecting all of the tracks (just check out the openings of “She Steps” or “Like An Animal” for clear and present examples) lending an inherent intensity and melodic bustle to the music. But there are plenty of other stylistic tidbits that peek out here and there; a touch of The Sea and Cake in “Margaret Ballinger,” or the gamelan-tinged percussion of “Ghosts.” Rinde Eckert’s vocals range from grungy-processed, impassioned, semi-spoken word, as in the off-kilter bluesy track “My Ship” to a lovely, pure countertenor in the refreshingly spare “John Knows.” While Eckert’s vocals often have a distinctly “trained” singer feel to my ears, the way they are juxtaposed with the rock-oriented instrumental music renders the full musical picture disarmingly unusual.
Mackey, Haanstra, and Treuting form a virtuosic instrumental team, performing all manner of contrapuntal twirlings and asymmetrical-yet-still-grooving rhythms. One of my favorite tracks is “Break Time,” which begins with recorded ticking clocks and a funky drum rhythm, upon which are gradually piled more and more unsynchronized clock sounds with loopy banjo and toy piano lines as Eckert delivers singsong lyrics. “Lost in Splendor” is perhaps the most chamber music-y of the tracks, adding on string quartet, but eventually it transforms into a fantastic, hard-driving drum set solo grounded by a thick wall of guitar and bass.
Lawson White’s production sounds, in a word, amazing. Every detail can be heard, and because there are a lot of details, repeated listening is rewarded with new sonic insights. I’m curious to know how a live performance will translate—if the exactitude present throughout the album can be captured live—as well as how much of the music is written down. A Big Farm concert might actually be the sort of performance where one could find audience members cradling drinks and scores.