Every once in a while and usually out of the blue, an artist comes along who seems so uninterested in being anyone other than who he is that even some of your most favorite bands seem like pretenders by comparison. I think of J.J. Cale back in 2004 on his first tour in forever and with a rare new album in stores, uttering not a single word about the new material and playing not one track from the CD the whole damned night. I think of The Velvet Underground, Bell & Sebastian, Josh Rouse, Mark Knopfler—artists whose only objective is to be true to their own vision despite any cost that authenticity may entail. But it’s time to put those Bright Eyes CDs back on the rack and check out a new guy on the block (well, new-ish—you just haven’t heard of him yet): Peter Salett, whose promising new album, In the Ocean of the Stars, is due out July 22nd.
Even bands of such indisputable integrity as Velvet Underground or Belle & Sebastian can seem stuck in a bit of a shtick after a while; that you can so assuredly turn to them at any time to deliver exactly the kind of sound your latest mood craves is great, but it’s also the kind of reliability that mars the work of bands who cling to what works rather than challenging themselves to expand their creative arsenals. Soon, that favorite band of yours just doesn’t catch you off guard any more; every song’s move and gesture inhabits its own permanent room in your memory, and you start to wonder where the groove went.
That’s when you turn to artists like Peter Salett, whose work at once appeases and surprises, delivering a steady serving of cool-minded folk pop that’s laced with the occasional, unanticipated flourish—a distant twang of lap steel silvers the edges of the song, or the funky tear of an amped-up guitar fractures a ballad’s fragile beauty to reveal something even more powerful and, it turns out, wholly unexpected. Suddenly you remember what it felt like when you fell in love with that one favorite band all those years ago.
Peter Salett: “With Anybody Else,” After A While (2004)
Unlike most of those established favorites, though, there’s something mildly brazen in Salett’s delivery that promises to never go stale. Listening to an entire album of his—a rare feat in this age of the mp3—reveals a range of impressive breadth and confidence. “Heart of Mine,” featured on the soundtrack for 2000’s Ben Stiller flick Keeping the Faith (yes, Salett’s been at it for a while now—question is, where have you been?), smacks of a kind of wizened Ben Folds or the charged piano pop of Mark Malman. But just when a folk-pop masterpiece like “With Anybody Else” tempts you to suspect that you’ve got Salett’s number, he digs for the devastating depths of “What A Beautiful Dancer” from his upcoming Ocean of the Stars, an uncharacteristically rocking tune that incorporates elements of surf rock and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse into his bright acoustic brand of indie pop. It’s a trippy piece of rock ‘n roll that picks up where the last Sparklehorse album left off–think “Mountains” or “Knives of Summertime.”
Like “Heart of Mine,” Salett’s new single, “Miss You,” sleepwalks breezily into a gorgeous acoustic soundscape that floats through its too-brief couple of minutes by force of its own mildly embittered longing. As if to make the much-needed suggestion that “indie” isn’t necessarily synonymous with self-loathing, though, Salett is careful not to linger in those sentiments too long. He quickly rebounds (oh, the puns!) with the sweetened melancholy of spare pieces like “Safe” or the album-closing “Sunshine,” a tune that captures the wistful daydreams of Salett’s sound and songwriting as accurately as anything he’s put to tape. Ocean of the Stars doesn’t depart in any measurable way from Salett’s proven recipe of laid back folk-pop with the occasional edge you never saw coming, but that’s because he neither needs nor intends to change. He is who he is. And, anyway, with a musical palate as wide as his, there’s really nowhere to depart to that he hasn’t already been.