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Chemical Friends

Somewhere between Joni Mitchell and Mason Jennings, the title "singer/songwriter" inherited something of a bad rub. As "folk music" gets a bracingly fresh reintroduction by innovators like Devendra Banhart, Sufjan Stevens and Joanna Newsom (amongst many, many others), so too has the modern singer/songwriter stigma been updated and altered forever by the life — and self-imposed death — of its fellowship's tortured crowned king, Elliott Smith.

Smith was the archetypal late-'90s singer/songwriter, an iconic musician blessed with but three discernable tools: whispery pipes, labyrinthine picks and a songwriting panache rivaling that of the original masters. Since his fall from grace following Sony's release of his penultimate album, Figure 8, every guitar-slinger with a thunderously soft voice has thrown their hat into Smith's pitiable ring, none pulling off the ironic necessary pastiche — God-given melodic gifts star-crossed by an immense sense of mortal self-loathing — with any real aplomb.

In the meantime, even the realm of electronica — a previously chilly enterprise thought by many to need thawing — has warmed up, acts like Scott Herren, Boards of Canada and the Postal Service out-emoting the plentiful six-string hoarse whisperers. Staking out San Francisco as their rebel confederacy capital, folkie weirdos have taken over as the new-era dashboard confessionals; pop singer/songwriters of Smith's ilk, at least in the early years of this newborn millennium, seem a doomed, dying breed.

Enter, if you will, indie music's General Sherman. Burning down the sizable barriers between Smith's plaintive folk-pop and the new wave of crossover electronic artists, San Franciscan Nyles Lannon has created a smoldering debut hot from the heat of a thousand either/or spins, a record that manages to eulogize Mister Misery in a language spawned solely from a decade of eavesdropping on Smith's inner whimpers. Thankfully, though, Chemical Friends is no wimp; incongruous breakbeats and underwater synths emerge to envelope Lannon's fragile tenor every time it falters, fashioning a prop for the sweetest minor-key melodies and finest Simon & Garfunkel guitar impersonations you've heard since Damon Gough crossed paths with Hugh Grant.

"The Catch" immediately and eerily invokes Smith, an acoustic refrain rooting Lannon's uneasy lyrics in a soil of various effects, the most tangible a spacey synth panning from channel to channel. Flashing a well-hidden furor, Lannon uproots this fertile garden three minutes in, the menacing buzz of an electric guitar tilling the ground for his sudden change in mood: "So much you hide from/ And how you throw your life away."

Much of Chemical Friends espouses such not-so-subtle morals about the evils of drug abuse, running the gamut from preacher confessionals to preachy condemnations — the latter's presence probably the only thing blocking the record's entrance to the pantheon of instant classics. But Lannon's craft is so assured, and his lyrics so inspired, it's easy to forgive any excessive heavy-handedness. "Hollow Heart," "Fortune Cookie," and "Spy" blow in on a breeze, hushed vocals resting on a thousand-thread sheet of brushed acoustic cotton, the effect a calming balm for Lannon's stinging subjects.

The record is almost as effective when it ditches the string-tickling for several pre-programmed tracks: "My Last Breath" provides a welcome change of pace with its oscillating synth textures and belching drum-kit backbeat, while "The Nature of Things" begins with a sonar-like crescendo before settling into a short, sweet electro-sample of its previous guitar melody. But the most memorable moment comes on the song "Demons," where, after synth tones hiccup and sputter around a digital heartbeat for three drawn-out minutes, tiny syncopated explosions begin disrupting Lannon's rhythm in the distance, the artist adjusting on the fly for a climactic, barn-burning comedown.

On songs like these, it's easy to think of Chemical Friends as a fonder farewell to Elliott Smith than the unfinished — and uneven — final collection of Smith's own songs, From a Basement on the Hill. At times, the likenesses are downright unnerving: Lannon might as well be speaking for the muted Smith when he intones, over and over until the track's tempestuous finish, "And I know some things/ Can't be alone again." For all we know he's probably talking about addiction again, or maybe a girl. But in light of the tragic events of October 2003, it sounds — by chilling, posthumous proxy — like an all-too-familiar threat.

by Noah Bonaparte

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