The Act Of Estimating As Worthless - Amongst These Splintered Minds//Leaden Thoughts Sing Softly (2012)
“It’s funny, the things we remember”
I think that in general, people tend to get hung up on what they forget rather than what they remember. The misplaced keys, forgotten anniversaries, and unremembered combinations to the high school lockers of our daily lives impact our existence in an immediate sense. We forget because we don’t care — Not about keys, anniversaries, or locker combinations — about the mundanities of the human world. But our world is not exclusively ordinary, and sometimes our minds surprise us with the familiar beauty of even the simplest memories.
The New York-based folk group The Act of Estimating As Worthless thrive in this memory-space. Just as much as they make music with guitars, horns, and sweeping strings, Michael Van Asselt and Zoe Grant make music with memories, drawing inspiration from the potent and universal themes of relationships, aging, and childhood. Theirs is a world of constellations in the night sky, long drives home from the house of your grandparents years ago, and fallen trees in the backyard of your childhood home — And that’s all within just one song. Throughout their new record Amongst These Splintered Minds//Leaden Thoughts Sing Softly, The Act of Estimating As Worthless opens up and explores this world, illuminating the world of the rest of us along the way.
Memory is certainly a major subject of the album, most notably of course on “The Things We Remember,” but also more subtly on tracks like “My Left Thumb,” a quiet piece in which Van Asselt pines about holding hands with a former lover. ”My left thumb goes on top when I weave my fingers together,” he sings, “and I can’t remember whose thumb went on top when our hands were together.” Coupled with occasional bursts of nostalgic imagery, this kind of quaintly simple poetry constitutes most of the album’s lyrics. The lyrics themselves are conveyed by either Van Asselt or Grant, or the combination of the two of them, who often sing in unison on the album. Collectively, they sing in murmuring, deadpan tones, producing an effect somewhere between a less depressing Carissa’s Wierd and a less insipid Moldy Peaches. When they sing together, as on the lilting waltz “A Few Paces Behind,” their voices strike a balance between childlike whimsy and the bittersweet feeling of retrospection, just as their lyrics do.
This intimate and unhinged vocal style creates a curious contrast with the music. The majority of the songs on Amongst These Splintered Minds… begin rather humbly with a verse or two of simple guitar picking, but almost all of them soon build up into something more expansive. The opening track “Bones” and “No One On The Road” create especially powerful crescendos — grand, sweeping instrumental movements with bowed bass, violins, and multi-part horn arrangements that lift the listener off his feet and up into the ether. Other tracks utilize toy pianos to great effect, while “Massive Windows” and “The Things We Remember” feature distorted guitar leads that sit perfectly above the lush acoustic mix below them. For a group of college kids making folk music, the production on this album is really excellent, and demonstrates an impressive awareness of space and dynamics.
Like a dusty old photo album in the attic of your parents’ house, Amongst These Splintered Minds//Leaden Thoughts Sing Softly is an album that will make you laugh, smile, reflect, and maybe even cry a little. But even though it is a deliberately nostalgic album rooted in musical traditions of the past, it presents itself as one of the boldest and most exciting folk records I’ve heard this year. I don’t think I’ll ever cease to be impressed with what young college kids can accomplish, and this record validates that.