by Jonathan Bannister (@j_utah)
There’s something off about the way Broken Rope begins; like the feeling one gets watching the opening of Blue Velvet. Except maybe a Blue Velvet that was directed by Kubrick. Things seem idyllic enough, but under the surface something is horribly wrong. Only this isn’t a David Lynch or Kubrick film, it’s a David Vassalotti (of Merchandise) album. A genre-less collection of songs free of any noticeable constraints, except those Vassalotti has no doubt imposed upon himself. At times the album is all gristle and throb, and at other times it is like listening to the apocrypha for the neon bible. Vassalotti goes where he wishes and is beholden to no firm set of ideas.
Vassalotti is perhaps best known as a member of Merchandise. And while Merchandise themselves are no strangers to following whatever sounds the writing asks of them, it would be easy enough to classify Broken Rope as a typical solo project with the feel of a songwriter trying all the things that wouldn’t fit with their main project. But as we pull away from the record stores and become listeners online, with any album at the ready, are solo albums still the playground for the different? Is genre just another outdated idea? Maybe its less about things not sounding the same versus not fitting thematically? Something as jarring as "Moly Kitezh" sitting next to songs like "Ines de Castro" and "Sarah Sings" doesn’t feel weird anymore. It’s just another curated playlist sequenced to take us on a journey. As our listening becomes more fluid, why should the album stay static? Or maybe branching off to do a solo album isn’t about wanting to try something new so much as it is about wanting to work alone? The limits of a band are usually found in it being a collaborative process and so instead of a solo album being a place to try new sounds or themes, it’s a place to go it alone, to be fully in control.
Broken Rope is truly a solo project. Written, recorded, performed, and produced by Vassalotti himself in his home. It’s also a passion project, dealing with interests specific to Vassalotti like Portuguese history, Russian folklore, and Spanish poetry. Things a former English/American Lit Major would find interesting. And while these are interesting fun facts to read from a press release, does any of these disparate pieces add up to an engaging and worthwhile listening experience for anyone but Vassalotti? The answer is yes.
“Drawn and Quartered” with its swagger strutting from the speakers. “Ines de Castro” feels like the demo version of a new wave classic thought to have been lost forever. The dust breaking off the quarter inch tape as it plays through for the first time in forever, the dust actually adding to the sound. The back porch acoustics of “Sarah Sings” complete with dog sounds that lead into the industrial clang of “The Dogs.” Different as it all may seem, there is a cohesion. It feels right together. It’s not always an easy listen. It will challenge you and take up space in your ears. What started as something to have on while working will quickly demand more from you. It’s an album not content with being background noise. “Maly Kitezh" especially might have you frantically looking for the volume control lest you scare the dinner guests.
The album is an unsettling listen. But then again these are unsettling times. One benefits from listening to the album as a whole unit versus diving into the middle. The instrumental tracks take on the feel of a Greek chorus, directing our attention, summing up what has come before, and previewing what is to come. It all ends with the title track. A song that has the feel of summation; of going through the dark tunnel and coming out the other side to a bright new day. It’s a journey that has been strictly set up by Vasalotti and one that rewards those who take the trip. Cue the end credits.