Multi band side project yields excellent results
The problem with a side project is that generally you are always thinking back to the original bands. This is exactly what doesn’t happen with the Gunnera debut album from trio Pfarmers. Danny Seim (Menomena, Lackthereof), Bryan Devendorf (the National) and horn player Dave Nelson (the National, Luluc, Local Natives) have created an album that is as eclectic as it is enjoyable. No easy feat, just ask Zoon Van Snook.
Gunnera opener Benthos sounds like a fog horn that slowly skews into didgeridoo, while being underpinned by an ethereal synth that wouldn’t be out of place on the KLF Chill Out album. As it fades out, You Shall Know the Spirit kicks in. Through a driving bass and haunting horns, it follows on the ethereal nature of opening track Benthos, but adds elements of Devendorf’s other band the National for good measure. Work for Me sounds like Elvis Costello fronting Battles at their most charming and poppy. The track’s bassline does share an uncanny resemblance to David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes. Don’t let this put you off though. Work for Me illustrates that Pfarmers have tunes on their mind as well as eerie lurid soundscapes. El Dorado is a dark and broody subconscious trip, that is about fear and overcoming it. Ol’ River Gang is the stand out track. In the first thirty seconds it jumps from dancey banger, to a New Orleans Funeral March then manages to mix the two together to create something totally unexpected, but ultimately cognitive. Promised Land is a nine-minute monster that follows the work of the previous six tracks. Ultimately it sounds like an elongated jam track, but that’s fine as it’s a bookend to Benthos, and brings the album full circle and closes it perfectly.
So after hearing the album what’s it all about? Seim recently gave this away “The record is about a dream I had where I’m reluctantly accepting a fear of drowning by focusing on being reincarnated as a giant Gunnera plant, which thrive on the banks of rivers (specifically the Jordan River i.e. the Biblical promised land) after I paint myself gold and sink to the bottom like the El Dorado of South American folklore” Right so that’s sorted then! Throughout Gunnera you are questioning if this is really happening or if the audio panoramas are snapshots into the bands psyche?
One album down and whatever Pfarmers are doing its working. They’ve toiled over their debut with diligence and care. Nurturing ideas and rehearsals into coherent tracks. The one thing that is abundantly clear about Gunnera, is how ambitious and free of constraint Seim, Devendorf and Nelson were when they were making it. As this wasn’t for their day jobs there was no real worry about commercial or critical response, and that is what makes it such a great album. They made it because they wanted to, not because of what if had to do. Whether there will be another Pfarmers album will remain to be seen, but given the quality of Gunnera, it can’t be long before those seeds start to germinate and another bunch of tracks take root in their collective minds ready for harvest.