As with every component of what once constituted the music industry, technological advances have completely shaken up the trope of the one-man troubadour. The millennial version of a musician plaintively strumming an acoustic guitar in a coffeeshop might be something along the lines of Cars & Trains: a musician hunched over a computer in a home-recording studio, tinkering obsessively with ProTools. Cars & Trains is the moniker for one-man multi-instrumentalist Tom Filepp, he of label-turned-magazine Circle Into Square. Filepp’s second full-length, The Roots, The Leaves, finds him musing his own mortality through an exploration of lyrical and musical intersections between the organic and inorganic.
The album’s title is particularly well thought-out: Each track is rooted in a folk song’s simple structure but eagerly explores the offshoots and possibilities electronic music affords and can bring to the table. Filepp certainly isn’t the first musician to bridge the analog/digital or organic/inorganic gap in recorded music, but these songs are notable for Filepp’s zeal for textural craftsmanship. Typically, music of this ilk this sounds intricate, but somehow these tracks retain kind of a minimalistic sound — partially because there’s not much variety in their arrangement, or a wide range of sounds used. Unfortunately, this makes the full length of the album feel a bit monotonous. As QRO Magazine pointed out, the effort might have been better served as an EP.
The second major barrier to entry is the fact that many of these tracks just sound out of sync. It’s not always a dealbreaker, though at times this unpolished sound translates as sloppy rather than rustic or authentic. This is particularly apparent on the lead-off track “I Know Someone,” where the drum machine seems to fight the vocals and instrumentation rather than supporting them. Even though the arrangements’ disunity can be a bit distracting on the whole, there are certainly rewarding moments in nearly every song. This is especially true of the two title tracks, aural reflections on what man-made “roots” and “leaves” might sound like. “The Roots” begins as thick mass of (mostly) collected environmental sounds, sporadically punctuated by boggy horns; “The Leaves” is replete with chattering syncopation — synths, drum machine, chimes. Both are concise, interesting expressions of the places where man-made structures encroach on the natural world.
Aside from the two title tracks, Filepp is at his best on “Intimidated By Silence,” the track that hews closest to a traditional “pop” song. Its spacious arrangement and catchy, shuffling beat make a comfortable bed for intermittent bursts of strings that lends a warmth lacking in many of Roots‘ other tracks. Both lyrically and musically, “Silence” is also Filepp’s most cohesive effort at fusing technology with the natural world — and his most mature analysis of the simultaneous impermanence and permanence of human effort. The song’s meta-refrain goes “The meter/ Of the song/ That I sing/ Loses time/ With the air/ That I breathe/ Through my lungs/ As the dust settles,” a thoughtful summation of The Roots, The Leaves’ overarching artist’s statement: Can any artist’s legacy approach the permanence of the natural world?