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Know Your Product: Jonathan Badger, Unsung Stories from Lilly’s Days as a Solar Astronaut (MT6/High Horse)

March 9, 2010

The first thing you notice about Unsung Stories from Lilly’s Days as a Solar Astronaut is its distinctive packaging, a cryptic collage overlaying a backdrop the color of faded parchment paper: ragged, Ralph Steadman-esque lettering interspersed with distressed typefaces, washed-out snapshots of an ’80s-era sedan and an unidentifiable action figure, aimless doodles, a gray cluster of evocative text clippings, and an image of a pair of open scissors. If your guess is that Unsung wouldn’t be all sweetness and light—that its aching, emotional longing runs deep—award yourself a gold star.

This melancholic, mosaic record—the second from Baltimore-based aural alchemist Jonathan Badger—looks like a tragic scrapbook, and it sounds like one, too, even as its song titles split the difference between blunt utilitarianism (“Aria 7″) and desperate, depressive delusion (“They Searched for Each Other in the Shelter of Mercury”). Unsung shuffles nimbly between extremes of darkness and light the way an Olympic figure skater transitions from twirls and spins to Lutzes and axles, a suite of fluid, involving instrumentals that draws from disparate genres to arrive at a sort of post-ambient survey course.

Badger’s sonic palette can definitely inspire tinnitus: “Lucius” forces effects-driven, contact-mic’d-wasps-in-a-jar chicanery to play nice with Mogwai-lite gloaming, while “The Vessel Megalo” is all orchestral, noise-metal swing. “Aria 7″ gently stipples downcast classical harmonies with static and micromorphed bongo-beat samples then drops all of that in favor of starched electric ax sandblasts. A few tracks—namely the aforementioned “Mercury,” which cries out to be set to an interpretive dance piece, and the hiccupping hospital monitor, conservatory drear of “Beat 1″—generate the kind of dissonant cross-currents that fool you into thinking that your cell phone is ringing near by.

Unsung is at its best when Badger really gets his Siberian-winter-of-our-discontent on. “His Face Like Glass to the Touch”—a modernist tone poem for piano, Mellotron, and guitar that peers deeply into its own cracked mirror image—paints a spellbinding portrait of baroque/prog unease, and “vocals” that have been drained of all humanity lend the piece an operatic cast. “The First Time I Dreamt of the Surface There Was No-One to Hold” shoves burbling, opaque electronics and sewing-machine stitched riffs through pregnant silences and gusts of string-section anguish that are abruptly cut short.