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Listening to a Craftsman at the Peak of His Craft – “The Forecast” from Seattle’s Downpilot

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Downpilot is a band to the same extent that Iron & Wine is a band in that essentially it’s a ‘one-man band’ with a more or less steady supporting cast that helps flesh out the bounteous material of that one man. While there are certainly distinct differences between Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam and the guy that sits at Downpilot’s helm, Paul Hiraga, the one constant they share is a singular, driven, near-visionary voice at the center of things. And by ‘voice’ we of course don’t just mean vocals but the entire prospect of talent and influence that lie at the project’s core. Another thing they share is pure brilliance. In Hiraga’s case, and to his advantage, he applies that brilliance to an avidly catholic range of styles deriving from multiple decades. Even as it borders on the varied territories of a somewhat urban Americana, Downpilot’s mission, it would seem and not least here on The Forecast, is to travel the historical megahertz with an eye and ear open to any and all coordinates that will further the work and incorporate it at will. It’s not some songwriting challenge – there’s never any sense of it being for the sake of it – but rather the call to, simply, meet the inherent needs of the song, as it should most surely be. Of late, and adding to the context of the foregoing, Hiraga has pretty much doubled down on that ‘one-man’ concept by adding both recording and mixing to his task list and the result, not unexpectedly, is a more holistic-sounding enterprise. For all their subtle (and sometimes not-so) varieties of tone, the tracks on The Forecast feel as if they’ve all been carved from the same block of basalt.

Tenderly spry, opener “Black Eye” is immaculate in that trademark Downpilot fashion by which we mean its intricacies are all laid bare for all to hear and yet, blended together, sound as if they arrived from the heart fully assembled. It’s like that with this guy, he seems to practice a kind of songwriter’s sleight-of-hand where often as not complexity comes in the form of the exquisitely temperate, a conclusion seconded by, um, second track “Totems” as it wends its immediate and enigmatically sinuous way into your consciousness, in this case ushered in by a haunting float of violin (Melinda Rice, present throughout along with vox support from Jeff Brown, Walkabout Anna Marie Ruljancich and the Wedding Present’s Terry de Castro) and a drum track that echoes the indigenous Duwanish presence that helped inspire the track. That otherwise unspoken sense of environment, that detail – again, meeting the needs of the song – is one of the innate joys of a Downpilot album and The Forecast reinforces the further obvious fact that we’re listening to a craftsman at the peak of his craft.

“Red Desert,” one of this album’s [ten, actually – ed.] highlights, burns with the verve of a Richard Thompson given a zap of Zevonesque flair while firing off in the midst of its dry heat some of Hiraga’s most potent lyrics yet (“the trees are all withering from the machinery” but one example) before the piano-based “Strangers Hotel” rings desolate, delicate and surpassingly lovely in a dark dream sort of way, its strings and flute-like synth suggesting a quite beautiful if quite likely post-apocalyptic day and then, having hit the halfway mark, we come to “Balancer” and time stops, at least for the guy behind the pen that’s writing these words and really we’d lay odds it would for just about anyone. Brushed with a touch of gentle transcendence, the song without irony evokes the spellcasting legacy of CSN that, one, as fate would sadly have it, shimmers like a eulogy for David Crosby and two, brought a shiver of remembrance to your correspondent’s heart as I rode that track back fifty years to my bedroom at night as that 17-year-old listens to 4 Way Street on his headphones in the darkness waiting for sleep to pull him under and any record does that I’ll hold as a sacrament.

To the extent that that reads like a statement of reverence let it stand as such, seeing as the record down to the elegiac title track that serves as closer – sparse but emotionally lush, Rice’s violin shadowing the plaintive bold of the singer’s vocals and the bare piano chords they’re hung upon – only confirms the legitimacy of the comparison. The Forecast is one of those rare records that never stints on nor shies away from beauty and all the struggle and grace the word and our understanding of it contains. With the finesse of Michael Chapman and a sensibility worthy of Steinbeck, the album’s ten songs heard as a whole bring immensity, stillness, and a profound, unerring nuance and clarity into the light. In the face of what we all face in the coming years, it’s good to have a record that, even as its themes obliquely reflect that very prospect, makes it feel good to be alive. [get your Forecast here]