As the lead guitarist for hometown favorites The Decemberists, Chris Funk is not your typical guitar hero. Although he can duke it out like a champ on electric guitar against Stephen Colbert and Peter Frampton, Funk’s new project, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, is an exquisite blend of chamber pop, folk and country.
As the lead guitarist for hometown favorites The Decemberists, Chris Funk is not your typical guitar hero. Although he can duke it out like a champ on electric guitar against Stephen Colbert and Peter Frampton, Funk’s new project, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, is an exquisite blend of chamber pop, folk and country. Wisely, he avoids lyrics on any of the songs and thereby sidesteps most direct comparisons to The Decemberists.
How did this project come about? It seems that Mr. Funk moved into the burgeoning Mississippi neighborhood a few years ago and took a shining to playing instruments on his porch. On some of those long summer nights, which are great for walking the neighborhood, he caught the ears of his musically inclined neighbors. Pretty soon there were weekly jam sessions in his living room, and eventually Funk wanted to record some of the ideas they had come up with. According to the band bio, “This recording documents those times in an array of cover songs and original ‘jams’ written in a haze fueled by fellowship, libations and other unmentionables.” The musicians on the album are Chris Funk, Fang (the dog) and their neighbors. Which in total makes up about 13 people (including one song with Death Cab For Cutie’s guitar whiz Chris Walla) on a vast assortment of instruments.
What do we hear on the album’s 13 choice cuts? Guitars (mostly acoustic, some pedal steel, and just a lil’ electric), banjo, dobro, some horns, a little upright bass, drums (both acoustic and machine-based), a few wordless oohs and aahs, and some other tinkling sounds that aren’t quite placeable. What do they sound like all mixed together? Well, Funk has described it as “good intermittent music for NPR’s All Things Considered!” But even more so, it sounds like those long, hot, lazy summer nights. It’s the musical equivalent of porch-settin’ in the neighborhood, sipping on a mint julep or a cool Hefeweizen while watching the sun slowly go down behind downtown.
Plastic Bag in the Tree‘s 15 tracks include five covers, including Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” and Radiohead’s “Amnesiac/Morning Bell.” The rest of the tracks are originals, but there isn’t one obviously best song. Instead, the original “jams” and the covers all flow seamlessly from one to the next, and the listener gets the impression that what is on the album isn’t all that different from what this group of friends sounded like on Funk’s porch two summers ago.
Of course, the Massive Attack and Radiohead covers are sure to be instant faves for the indie-rock set, but the rest of the album isn’t to be discounted as mere background music. The album is punctuated by open-tuned guitars, which give the songs a kind of wavy, almost droning quality. Take the album opener “Chained to a Pole.” It starts with some gentle guitars, backed by a light drum machine that sounds like it’s from an old organ’s built-in beat selection. About halfway through the song enter a few electric guitar notes, a squiggly keyboard sound (probably a Moog) and then a brass section, playing a separate melody over the top of the main guitar line. In the background, we can also hear a military snare rolling along too.
“Give Back the Recycle Bin Now!” is more of a standard country-sounding song, with a dobro starting it off, but also featuring occasional accents from a way-out-there keyboard. Add in some spiciness from a banjo, pedal steel and what sounds like a lead Theremin line. This is more of a sipping-whiskey-from-the-jug song, and makes for a fun departure stylistically from the rest of the album.
There’s a nice, hazy ’70s sunset vibe to Plastic Bag in the Tree, thanks to the wonderfully distinctive sound of the Moog synth, and the otherwise primarily acoustic arsenal of stringed instruments. It’s quite an assortment of sounds, and makes for great repeated listening, especially if you want an instrumental album that’s not a jazz wank-a-thon or an insomnia-curing New Age record.
The live band, a kind of supergroup of local indie-rockers, is playing a string of West Coast dates in the next two weeks. With members from Horse Feathers, Talkdemonic, Point Juncture, WA, and of course The Decemberists, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble should be something to see live.
Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble June 2 at the Doug Fir