Photo by Todd Simmons
Theo Angell in his apartment on the Lower East Side
Under the radar
Theo Angell’s new album, “Auraplinth,” is a revelation
BY TODD SIMMONS
The musician/filmmaker Theo Angell is an Oregonian who has been living and working under the Lower East Side radar for more than a decade now and recalls how eccentric it used to be. “My old landlord was a cantor and he had an entire apartment floor filled with live roosters.” Nobody was quite sure why. The rest of the building was mostly empty and Angell could crank up his music as loud as he wanted with no reprisal from the neighborhood junkies. Back in the late 90s, when he was paying his rent by waiting tables at Mortimer’s uptown for the likes of Henry Kissinger and Nancy Reagan, Angell’s first band, Hall of Fame, was playing what he called “apartment rock,” which were gigs in downtown lofts. There could be “noise” bands one night and James Murphy - pre-LCD Soundsytem -spinning records the next.
Although he has since branched out on his own, Angell still embodies the eclectic spirit associated with the downtown neighborhood. From recording in his old apartment on Ridge St. with a choir (The Tabernacle Hillside Singers) to screening his “mobile projections” on the sides of Manhattan buildings (including a guerilla showing on the facade of the Guggenheim on Fifth Avenue, alarming the NYPD when he inadvertently left behind an amp on the sidewalk), he has maintained a hand-crafted ethic that has driven him to create one of the most beautifully atmospheric, shape-shiftingly original records in recent memory: “Auraplinth.”
To the uninitiated, there are hints of different influences in Theo Angell’s music: bluegrass legend Bill Monroe, the Italian field recordings of Alan Lomax, Syd-Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Dino Valente, Desmond Dekker, The Velvet Underground, and Moondog. But the way that Angell has crafted this record almost single-handedly, during a two-week whirlwind of improvisational “chanting and jamming,” has yielded unclassifiable and weighty results. It is not classifiably folk, bluegrass, or psychedelic, yet it conjures up dynamic elements of each of those styles. The acoustic guitar treatments and the swirling waves of vocal experimentation create a delirious and cinematic effect that ranges from minimal to kaleidoscopic. The music sounds like hallucinogenic campfire songs with a UFO hovering above the tree line. There are both crawling dirges and scampering ditties here.
Angell claims to have recorded “Auraplinth” during “a heartbroken period of time” (the album cover depicts a “Victorian death mask” of Angell himself). While there are moments of lightness, there are also plenty of shadows and turbulent waters to navigate here. The song “Aurelia” is based on the autobiography of Nerval, who hanged himself in 1855, and features the kind of minor chord acoustic intro one might expect from an Alice In Chains song. On the other hand, the record also includes love letters to the birds and trees.
Growing up on five acres of landscaped church farm property in Oregon, Angell was only exposed to pop music by snippets from passing cars, bus drivers or when playing “black pirates.” That was the name he and his home-schooled siblings had for sneaking around the stringent moral code of their minister father by, for instance, smuggling in tapes from the outside world. What he did get to hear plenty of was hymns and choir voices in his father’s church, where all of the children were expected to sing. His brother, James Angell, a talented singer/songwriter, acquired his piano chops playing Bach in that same church.
Since they didn’t have the standard rock influences to direct their evolution and as they grew older they were able to pursue unusual paths. Theo was compelled by odd sounds like the vibrating drone of the motorcycle he rode around Oregon. Later he discovered Jimi Hendrix and knew it was time to move on. He taught himself the guitar and banjo once he left home and the church, and after moving to New York City in 1993, began to really push his artistic boundaries. He wrote an as of yet unpublished novel, made films and formed Hall of Fame. His recent short films, about the morphing of nature, are powerfully abstract and worthy of being featured in a gallery.
Compared to his first solo record, “Dearly Beloved,” which was old American roots-based, “Auraplinth” (Digitalis) has truly invented its own language. Half of the album was improvised during recording sessions in Portland and much of that was “Glossalia” vocals, which is like an old Anglo version of jazz scatting or gibberish set to music. Some of the songs on the album have very clear lyrics like “Have You Seen The Birds Lately?” and “Stuttgart Summertime” and others, such as “Bountfling” and “Flurdrid Mourning,” are lyrically indecipherable. Bearing a passing resemblance to Daniel Day-Lewis with a serious beard and long hair, Angell works as a carpenter and rides a bicycle around Manhattan and both activities seem to inspire his creative process. The drone of peddling through a teeming city has seeped into his music and so has some of the repetition of working with paintbrushes and hammer and nail.
The album was recorded in both a basement and an attic; the songs reflect the quilt-like sense of each being different rooms unto themselves. He weaves together tasty guitar tracks, alternating between a late night spoken-word grumble and a high-end “crying voice.” Some might try to hang the “freak folk” tag on him (think Devendra Banhart and friends) but he doesn’t consider himself a part of what he refers to as the “Elfsploitation movement.”
Instead of paying overt homage to his influences, Theo Angell’s music is less genre-specific and whimsical. Although he admits to having the occasional elfin moment himself, his music possesses more substance and is unpredictable. The name “Auraplinth” is a word, according to Angell, that means “combining the ether with a foundation” and sums up well the anchored yet spectral grooves that this record delivers in spades. The overall sound feels effortless and true and invokes a resonating world with every song.