Early in the spring I sat in the passenger seat of my friend Isaac Anderson’s car listening to an EP by a band he was thinking about writing about. I’ve spent most of my life playing in bands. I’ve signed record deals and tracked my radio hits. I’ve cashed my royalty checks like they’d always keep showing up in my mailbox. I devoted my life to the road for the better part of a decade. If I had a dime for every time a friend sat me down in their front seat to play me tracks from a new artist… But those days are long gone now. I’m old and so far outside the mainstream. So Isaac is my my hookup. Like the high school kid who sells pot to Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, he always has a stash of new music & he’s willing to share. Over the years this has included an introduction to the still obscure (at the time) Sufjan Stevens, Sigur Ros, Arcade Fire, and more recently one of my new favorites: Zac Little’s band Saintseneca.
IA is a professional musician himself (Akkilles, Well Dressed Downs, Builder), so he can spot the goods. He’s also a trained writer and a natural literary critic, so he can quickly pick apart a song, recognizing a writer’s genius (or lack thereof). As he played me a few tracks from Saintseneca’s recent release, he began pointing out the lyrics, the word play, the imagery, the astute rhyme schemes, poetic allusions to literature and philosophy–all of it dark but not dreary, sad but not sullen, and somehow hopeful, even triumphant–I became an instant fan of Zac Little, the band’s frontman and songwriter. I spent most of the thirty minute ride home trying not to drive off the freeway as I downloaded youtube videos of one freaky-good song after another.
IA has posted his homework in an elegant review of Saintseneca’s new release (find it on the Image Journal blog Good Letters, Patheos) in which he describes his first encounter with the band:
I saw the band four years ago at Used Kids, a record shop on High Street in Columbus, Ohio, their hometown. A crowd of twenty-five or thirty gathered upstairs to watch their unplugged acoustic set. Six or seven band members huddled together on a wooden riser smaller than my small kitchen. They were just kids then, college-age, punkish. I wasn’t expecting much.
Then the kid with the red hair started strumming the guitar, and another a baritone uke, and someone played banjo, someone violin, someone a smaller uke, and a guy took brushes to a box or snare drum, if I remember correctly, and then Mr. Red Hair started singing with a nasally baritone akin to Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, and halfway through the first song they all began stomping in unison at the top of each measure so that the sound was like a bunch of Appalachian punk troubadours trying to collapse a barricade.
And when the volume dropped and the stomping cut out, the gang vocals kicked in. I hope you’re wrong, they all sang in one fulsome voice. I feel connected to something strange and strong.
Folk instrumentation notwithstanding, this was a departure from the familiar folk-pop bent on romance and nostalgia. Saintseneca was more musically inventive, more lyrically strange, somehow both more raw and more refined. These were songs teasing out existential questions, songs with a prophetic pulse.
The song I often fixate upon is “Only the Young Die Good” (video at the top of the post). By the way that’s a bass he’s playing… he’s playing the song on an acoustic bass and it sounds amazing. Have you ever seen that before? The answer is no. You haven’t seen that before. How did he pull that off? The answer is simple: Zac Little is one of the most unique artists, one of the better songwriters I’ve ever encountered; Saintseneca one of the best new bands I’ve heard in years. You almost have to know music and the music business to appreciate this kid’s erudition. He’s that good. He does things Dylan used to do–lyrics all shot-through, effortlessly, with spirituality and faith though not in any form you are likely used to–things with melody I haven’t heard since Roy Orbison. IA again:
Saintseneca’s Dark Arc is a meditation on doom, according to Zac Little, the band’s frontman and lyricist. Though that word may mislead, for this record is bleak at times, but luminous too. Nods to death or impermanence are often met with a resistance to the same:
If only the good ones die young
I pray your corruption come
Swift like a thief in the night
Right I pluck my right eye right out
Little is a fighter, of sorts—When I crave a split lip, he sings in “Happy Alone,” I’ll get it quick—and the doom expressed here wakes the listener to the appetites bucking beneath apathy, the desire to not go down without a fight.
Also, as with the band’s earlier work, Dark Arc—I almost typed Dark Ark—is dense with the kinds of philosophical-religious concerns that Corgan seemed to be missing. Little is clearly God-haunted, even as his songs avoid the reflexive piety or devotionalism that tries to make an easy moral out of a mystery.
Indeed, when he sings lines such as Emergent from this sea of wheat / the flesh of God is flayed for you to eat, his voice sliding into and out of a tremulous falsetto, the question of whether or not Little believes in something like the Christian God becomes irrelevant. For he believes, unironically, in God language, has steeped in it, enough to create art that contends with the existence of a spiritual plane, art capable of haunting believers and nonbelievers alike.
If you’ve made your living as a musician, you know that artists are nearly universally neurotically-insecure. Incoming talent is greeted with suspicion by those who have laboriously eked out a living, guitars in hand, chips on shoulders. So there’s this progression we all have to go through: skepticism, dismissing most of what we hear as derivative and pointless; then something breaks through the jaded exterior–a melody, a lyric–and we become impressed in spite of ourselves. We respect the new artist and can become open to relationship. Every now and then we become a bit undone by an artist’s ability. I can’t convey the vulnerability involved when a person who makes their living as a singer/songwriter listens to another singer/songwriter and is forced to admit: “I can’t do what this guy is doing. I don’t have that kind of gift. I’m listening to a kind of talent, a quality of artistry I cannot even begin to touch.” Personally, I begin to question the sheer hubris and audacity with which I have ever claimed to call myself an artist or musician or singer or songwriter… then I brood for three days. Zac Little is one of those guys. Saintseneca is one of those bands.
But I did my three days last spring and I’m over it now. Now I’m just a fan. I hope you’ll take some time to read Isaac Anderson’s review and listen to Saintseneca for yourself.