Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention. This famous Zen saying, generally attributed to the writer Jane Hirshfield, boils Buddhism down into seven significant words. It seems relevant to start with this quote as I review the latest full-length record by Poor Moon, eponymously named “Poor Moon.”
People often claim that bands like Poor Moon are either not different enough, or too different, from the bands they break away from. As if that’s a bad thing, to break away and then try to find a new sound. Comparisons are rolled out, wishes listed, complaints filed: this record will do for die-hard Fleet Foxes fans until the next Fleet Foxes record, or Fleet Foxes light, or too bad the content is too folksy or too dark, unlike the Fleet Foxes. Poor Moon is criticized for not have the harmonies of the Fleet Foxes, rather than being praised for finding their unique sound as a side-project band with one LP and one EP.
As long as I’m listing general observations, here’s another: There seems to be an emerging trend in how bands are created and how they function and evolve. Poor Moon is a good example of what I think is the new normal. Musicians are musicians first, their band affiliations are secondary to their individual careers and interests. Nick, my good friend at The Business, has observed that this trend is very similar to artists in the early 20th Century (1900s-1930s), say, when music was generally centered on the individual artist (for example, Woody Guthrie, Bing Crosby, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Louis Armstrong, and many others). Over time, the trend moved toward bands as complete entities, culminating in the 1990s as brands, when every new LP from every supergroup being a new product of a franchise. People talked about the sound of a band, the focus being on the group rather than the individual.
Poor Moon, of course, is a band made up of amazing artists with history from other bands: Christian Wargo (Fleet Foxes, Crystal Skulls, Pedro the Lion, Danielson Famile), Casey Wescott (Fleet Foxes, Crystal Skulls), Ian Murray, and Peter Murray. Personally, I think having multiple bands is an intelligent strategy for musicians to keep their work fresh and interesting. What must it be like to play songs like “White Winter Hymnal” or “Mykonos” for the next 25 years on every tour, forever and ever? Those are cool songs, but I’m talking about a whole career here. Some people are filled with songs and new music, too much for one band to showcase it all. Why not make a new band for the new sound, the new interest? Thus the new normal: artists mixing and matching to keep their work alive and growing and changing. Less and less it will be about settling for offshoot bands and their EPs, while waiting for the next big LP from these bands.
As for “Poor Moon” and their first EP, “Illusion” (March, 2012), Poor Moon had two big challenges: find a unique sound separate from the popular Fleet Foxes’ sound, and find a unique songwriting/lyric space to allow new songs to stand equally alongside those of their more famous bands.
From the beginning, I’ve felt Poor Moon is a band of moods, with songs like sketches, solidly in the new-folk tradition, but experimenting with different narratives, different textures. The production on the new record is simple and clean and elegant. I’ve written about this already, but the times we’re living through right now aren’t cheery, so it seems perfectly reasonable to me for artists to ask difficult questions. It’s inevitable that some darkness finds its way into all levels of art. Songs are perhaps the best place to ask questions because they have the power to connect, instantly.
“Poor Moon” feels to me like a collection of short stories, and one of the most important aspects of these songs is how quickly they establish a setting. “Phantom Light,” perhaps my favorite song, connects a man’s life with a light that evokes both memory and warning. It’s imagistic, of course, but instantly full of character and even plot (the haunting feeling of a life gone but not gone, amplified and engaged by the way a light might fall across a desk or a chair). Or “Come Home,” rich in longing and almost romantic in its sweeter moments, is just a little sad, as if the question of coming home will remain an open one, unanswered and unfulfilled. “Waiting For” instantly establishes an almost rhetorical one-sided conversation that searches for resolution that isn’t going to come, a conversation so withdrawn that all that remains is the feeling of waiting. These 10 songs function, in lyric line as well as in musical feeling, like 10 short stories about modern life.
Poor Moon, the band, sets itself apart from the Fleet Foxes with a different sound that deserves to be taken seriously as something separate, something new. These are talented musicians with more horsepower than can be contained in one or even four bands. “Poor Moon” totally works as the group’s expression of restless and creative minds. Poor Moon’s sound is its own, fresh and well-crafted.
I have one complaint about this record, albeit a small one, but it’s about the album’s artwork and design. We’re living in a renaissance time of the musical artifact: vinyl, LP design, packaging, feel, the tactile side of music today. Poor Moon’s “Illusion” EP captured my attention from the moment I saw the gorgeous poster. I bought the CD, the LP, and even got a poster for framing. I might be missing something with this new art direction, but the “Poor Moon” artwork didn’t grab me. In fact, I missed the importance of this record at first because I didn’t realize it was even from Poor Moon. The artwork does a disservice to the strong songs within. It’s a little thing, but people are starting to collect music again for that magical, intangible thing that goes with cool artwork and LP design, as well as for the music. This new design doesn’t match the power and promise of these musicians or the creativity they deliver in this new record. They deserve better.