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The Cradle - "Little Missionaries" | Album Review

by Theodore Rowe

For all of the excellent archival opportunities and purported real-time artistic growth we get to experience with Bandcamp’s instantaneous uploads, let’s look at Paco Cathcart’s work as The Cradle for something different. Here is a careful threading of symbols, one on top of another, tying in back together, though not yet knotted to a finality. Spend some time sifting through The Cradle’s already extensive discography from the last few years and point and click on any album. What you’ll find is a recurrence of themes--bodies, boyhood, frustration with scientism, frustration with urbanity, spiritual cyclicality, rebirth, sacred language, and on and on--mapped on a musical geography that reaches from NYC down to the Blue Ridge Mountains and off to India and Ethiopia. Cathcart isn’t so much “progressing” as an artist as he is building upon a self-mythology that encompasses us in our world while calling for our attention.

Onwards to Little Missionaries then, The Cradle’s newest album since the claustrophobic Endless Room for Error earlier this year. Little Missionaries feels like the alternate answer to the existential compression Endless Room extrapolated. In Little Missionaries we begin at “Place Seven,” an energetic burst and communal romp carried by the sunny guitars and parkside recordings of children at play. Like The Layers of Honey, Cathcart immediately places us in childhood, at a point of immaturity, suggesting that a further growth is to come. It’s why “The desk at Harper’s Ferry, playing a computer game” in “Water Plug” briefly resurfaces later on the album in “The Opposite Way, Continued.” By the way, “Water Plug” is a delightful trip of childlike wonderment (those soft marimbas!) channeling George and Ringo at their most sillily stoned. 

With “Antonio Sings” and “Wichita” we get a hypnotic backbone: guitar lines and vocal melodies lay a basic framework in their repetition before a sonic expansion lurches to break the songs’ threshold. Little Missionaries is Cathcart’s most successful marriage of this releasing of tension with his bedazzling lyrics. Listen to the wavering vocal melodies in “Antonio Sings” matching the softening of perception or the neuroticism of the constant chatter in “Biting All Night Long” paired with its increasing tempo or the cyclical melodies in “Singing In The Street” mirroring the recurrence of days. The crux of the album, though, comes from “The Opposite Way” and its later development in its part two, “Continued,” near the end of the album. Cathcart sings of a slow spiritual journey that meets somewhere between a what-if of the past and a stagnation of the self on “The Opposite Way.” 

The sacrificial rebirth that comes later on “Continued” unfolds the present moment in its glory, as heard in the song’s gorgeous lift-off pulling in a street preacher, those same children, and a city train. It’s Cathcart on a Saint’s journey, emulating the missionaries who “pass by [his] door” on “The Opposite Way.” The baggage of the past is liftedLater, we hear the final death of the spirit’s past in the trippy collage “Sitting on Top of The World” before concluding with the dubbed-out “Place Eight” suggesting an even grander cosmic future. 

Little Missionaries punctuates its ending in its self-containment while still allowing us to dream for a while of the new places Cathcart is assuredly working up. There is much work to be done in the meantime. No one (myself included) has written anything on Cathcart’s use of literary intertextuality (Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth on the Appalachian “Pure Manipulator,” highlighting disgust with NYC’s hedonistic excess and atomization; Holden Caulfield’s red hat on “The Opposite Way,” to get us started), mechanization of the body, or theology. These symbols and themes have already appeared and will continue to crop up on The Cradle’s future releases. With other artists, I have heard their songs about their friends, pets, and lovers; The Cradle gives us a library--myths to relearn and new ideas of we can live.