Records by singer-songwriters can take a number of archetypal forms. There's the classic breakup exorcism (Smog's Knock Knock, written in the aftermath of Bill Callahan's split with Chan "Cat Power" Marshall); the bourbon-soaked diary (Gerald Collier's I Had to Laugh Like Hell and the first Crooked Fingers record both fit the bill); and of course, the eerie, postmortem opus (see Elliott Smith, Nick Drake, et al.). Not every introspective soul with a guitar adheres to one of those forms, but most who end up canonized work with those themes at one point or another. Music fans love those records in an extraordinarily personal way, usually because they mirror a life experience with which they're currently living or from which they're recovering.
Downpilot's Paul Hiraga seems to be forging a new perspective that is even more universally resonant: the accumulation of knowledge that comes with seismic life changes. That sounds broad—and it is—but when you listen to the Seattle-based outfit's beautifully executed third album, Like You Believe It (Roslyn Recordings), you can almost hear Hiraga unfurling an impressive summary of life lessons, covering everything from repairing broken hearts and rebounding from the death of a parent or child, to finding your purpose in life and struggling with creative inertia. When I make this observation to Hiraga during a recent phone chat, he concurs. "I think you've picked up on something. I won't pin it down to any one specific thing, but I feel like there were a lot of things going on that felt like shedding skin. You know how sometimes you just hit these points in your life where everything seems to be changing at the same time? That's where I felt like I was at."
In less-talented hands, this would be bad high-school poetry on tape; in Hiraga's it is one of the best local records of the year. Aside from his richly expressive voice and classically trained piano skills, the band's assets include the effortlessly graceful contributions of violinist/vocalist Anne Marie Ruljancich, tasteful bass playing by the Wedding Present's Terry de Castro, and precise, understated drumming by Jeff Brown (with occasional help from Hiraga's German pal Lars Plogschties).
The restrained, delicate approach of local producer Tucker Martine was the perfect match for the material, though Hiraga is quick to point out that overthinking the process was decidedly not on the studio agenda. "I was hoping to be a little more spontaneous," he recollects. "We had spent a lot of time on the first one and labored over stuff quite a bit. I liked that, but it really felt like a studio album. This one... I kind of wanted to go in and be a little bit raw—not like punk-rock raw—but just sort of letting things happen. [Much] like the Kerouac thing, 'first thought, best thought,' you know? Trust my instincts and see what happened." His instincts proved more than sound, so you won't want to miss Downpilot's CD release party for Like You Believe It at the Tractor on July 8 with the similarly talented Tim Seely and Bellingham duo the Crying Shame.
In markedly noisier news, Snitches Get Stiches also have an excellent new release to celebrate. Empty Records has just released Even a Butchered Carcass Can Shine, a shrapnel-spewing hurricane of metallic-edged punk that flattens the sophomore curse and hinges equally on a fondness for intellectual assassination (frontman Roddy Chops clearly suffers no fools) and whiplash-worthy rock racket. Even better, the assault is utterly unpredictable, with their prog-punk approach defying cliché and their impassioned delivery leaving you wanting more—even if you don't know what hit you. They'll be playing the Funhouse with Tractor Sex Fatality, the Royal Pains, and Histrionics on July 8. TSF fans should note that the band is dissolving and this will be their farewell show.
Unless you've been trapped under something heavy for the past week, you've probably heard that one of the area's most iconic and influential acts is also bidding us adieu. After an illustrious 11-year career (capped perfectly with the release of The Woods last year) Sleater-Kinney will play their last Northwest show at Portland's Crystal Ballroom on August 11. As we go to print, ticket information is not available, but keep an eye on our music blog, Line Out (www.thestranger.com/lineout), for more details as they are firstname.lastname@example.org