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The Afternoon Noir of “Primitives and Smalls” from Jeff Runnings of For Against

Jeff Runnings
Primitives and Smalls
Saint Marie Records

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Those expecting a latent For Against-style solo effort from that Lincoln NE-based band’s erstwhile frontman will perhaps be disappointed by Primitives and Smalls but, if so, we would suggest they immediately reappraise the value of their expectations, as the looming, often trembling luminescence this album offers is forty of the more beguiling minutes you’ll spend with a record this year.

Quietly disquieting, invested with layers of shimmering afternoon noir that innately reflect the vast unbroken terrain of its author’s lifelong surroundings, this is slow-motion shoegaze in an intimate trance (that intimacy a product of Runnings operating in full solo mode here, the artist inside his head inside a studio stacked with machines and his own deep musical history), sheer curtains of sound and body devoted to the melodic heart beating at the center of these tracks. Gauze with emotive grit, in other words, a quality that in execution happens to land it within the realm of Colin Newman and Malka Spigel’s Githead project, fans of which would be advised to flock to this album without hesitation.

“Maze” illuminates the landscape from the off with wall-of-sound drum strikes and an enveloping swell of synths that overtake like a sudden sunrise, Runnings’ vocals as he maps out a doleful strategy of a hanging-on relationship (“let’s keep talking a big game / pray that no one catches on“) evincing a persona tired and sharp, half cynical half vulnerable, a mindset more or less predominant record-wide. “Dim Like Dusk” uses mixed-in sound drops like another instrument, the effect a kind of arch crestfalleness, the brief wordless “Apertif”‘s sorrowful cast asks to be tacked on to the tail end of 154‘s tracklist, the creeping shadow synths of “Premium,” in tandem with its stalking and hypnotic Numanesque figures and Primitive‘s most arresting vocal hook (“what’s it like to be lost inside your head?“) make it a hard-to-top highlight of this already highlight-filled year, the nimble uptempo rumble of “Outside Oslo” strikes a note of dark-gilded optimism, while “Travelogue” flirts most openly with the brightness of electro-pop rhythms which suits since it’s the closest we get to a love song however qualified (the singer hoping at a minimumĀ for “an interesting story“).

Exiting on the mournfully mesmerizing note of “My Cheerleader,” whatever reservations brought to the table regarding the For Against lynchpin deviating from the sacred templates etched in the ’80’s/90’s should be thoroughly washed clean, not least by the understanding that it’s far more honest – not to mention refreshing – when an artist not only avoids the trap of the rehash but produces a profoundly personal piece of work like Primitives and Smalls. Call it a victory for artistic integrity or whatever, but more importantly, seek it out, it comes with its own reward free of charge. [pre-order here; Primitives and Smalls is released 05/06/2016]