Brian Mumford is the dove-throated singer, fleet-fingered acoustic guitarist, amateur electrical engineer, and post-noise pioneer behind Portland's one-man experimental folk band Dragging an Ox through Water. When I asked him where the title of his new album, The Tropics of Phenomenon, comes from, he replied: "It actually appeared first in the song 'Devil's Prayer,' which is on the record. I guess it is about a person (who happens to be me) not locking [himself] into expectations, and not flipping out at the messiness of reality or at least being able to maintain focus. 'The Tropics of Phenomenon' is all the uncontrolled, unexpectable mess of what is actually encountered. Plus, it sounds funny."
The titular line occurs about 45 seconds into "Devil's Prayer," when the preset-synth melody, strangely rubbery drum machine, and slightly off-key, thrift-store guitar that have perplexingly propelled the song this far suddenly fall down at the behest of a fuzzed-out bass tone, making way for Mumford's sure baritone to declare: "I will not be destroyed by the quest for faults. I will open my arms to the tropics of phenomenon." All of the sounds then drain away for a 30-second detour into what sounds like David Lynch's project room, before the sprightly steel drums return to give the rest of the instruments the "all clear," picking up right where they left off as if nothing happened. Within the utterly disorienting musical context in which it is delivered, Mumford's message of acceptance is directed to the listener as much as to himself. Things in The Tropics of Phenomenon are sometimes uncontrolled, unforeseeable, and untidy, but if taken for what they are—expectations be damned—they are also unimaginably lovely.
Surprise is a key element in the Dragging an Ox listening experience, and it is usually the result of chance in the compositional process. On Tropics, more so than on past releases, and certainly more than in live performances, Mumford's interest in making and playing electronic instruments shares the spotlight with his ability as a guitar- and vocals-oriented writer of folk songs. Yet many of these homemade electronic instruments—such as the light-sensitive sound generator he built, which he plays by placing next to a flickering candle—are primarily a means of injecting chaos and unpredictability into Mumford's song craft, as is his use of feedback. Any doubts about this approach are laid to rest in the almost painfully beautiful eight-bar feedback-and-recorder drone solo at the heart of album highlight "Houses and Homonculi."
Because of this aesthetic interaction, the songs on Tropics never come across as willfully weird or cheap pastiche, wherein noise is thinly juxtaposed with folk. Rather, sophisticated yet instantly memorable Appalachian steampunk guitar lines and vocal melodies organically sprout from and interweave with noisy oscillator interludes, and condemnations of US torture policy are crooned with the conviction and breadth of an expression of true love. As Dragging an Ox through Water, Mumford has intuitively developed an utterly coherent, strangely intelligible, private musical language, and The Tropics of Phenomenon is its first fascinating vernacular novel.
There is a The Tropics of Phenomenon listening party on Thursday, October 2, at Valentine's, and Dragging an Ox through Water performs at Backspace on Saturday, October 4.