Much of the derisive end of the response I’ve seen to YOB frontman Mike Scheidt’s first solo outing — given the title Stay Awake and released last month via Thrill Jockey – seems to center around the simple point that, “This isn’t YOB.” This is true. One imagines that had the Eugene, Oregon, native wanted to follow-up YOB’s 2011 Atma full-length, no one would’ve argued. The quick turnaround would’ve been hailed near universally and it would’ve been a great way to continue the momentum from their run of shows opening for Tool and a way to mark their ascendancy as a touring act (new West Coast dates were just announced). Thinking about that, maybe part of the appeal of doing an album like Stay Awake for Scheidt is the purposeful defiance of that expectation, checking that forward push and not losing sight of a personal creative drive. I don’t know that to be the case, but it makes for easy conjecture. Most pivotally, what the album does is balance neo-folk intimacy with Scheidt’s own particular psychedelic lushness, and amid a slew of heavy/doom solo outings – this year alone has brought acoustic works from Nate Hall of U.S. Christmas and Scott Kelly, as well as Kelly’s three-way split with Wino and Neurosis bandmate Steve Von Till tribute to Townes Van Zandt – it’s the flourishes that work to distinguish what is by now a familiar form at its root. Couple that with Scheidt’s relative inexperience in the style – he has said on stage that he’s very new to it – and Stay Awake can’t help but be individualized, whatever aspects of others’ work it might draw on. Some Kelly influence is there, and the interplay of electric backing chords and acoustic picking that forms the musical basis of “Until the End of Everything” is something I tend always to attribute in my head to Ben Chasny’s Six Organs of Admittance or perhaps even Angels of Light, but Scheidt maintains his wavering melodic vocal delivery and puts it to use in a variety of constants on the six-track/43-minute Stay Awake, which was recorded by the venerable Tad Doyle at his Studio Witch Ape.
That it’s a genuine studio production would on paper seem to run counter to the album’s bedroom folk intimacy, but in terms of the actual sound of the record, it doesn’t. Whatever room space is added to the third cut, “In Your Light,” the solitary mood pervades, and that’s true from the gradual fade-in of opener “When Time Forgets Time,” which keeps Scheidt’s unique (though increasingly imitated) riff patterning despite the shift in context. Of all the songs on Stay Awake, the first is probably the closest he comes to YOB’s style, but he’s neither near it nor a stranger to straightforward opening tracks – see any of the last four YOB records – so don’t think I’m making a direct comparison. “When Time Forgets Time” does much to establish the overarching aesthetic, but little to set up the dynamics that play out over the course of the ensuing Stay Awake, fading out as it came as though we’ve just glimpsed a piece of a larger whole. The shift toward more radical experimentation first shows itself on “Until the End of Everything,” which dedicates the first 1:45 of its total 4:49 to a slow spoken word piece formed at least in part from the lyrics on which a breathy Scheidt reminds his listeners that “Reason has no place in this,” and “Until the end of everything/You will be loved.” The turn from the momentum of the first track might be set as an analogy for the album itself, but that spoken part also marks a misstep – not so much in concept or recording, but in execution – and it’s the moment on Stay Awake where Scheidt’s inexperience with singer-songwriter material feels most apparent. By the time his jarringly distorted electric guitar kicks in at 1:46, the words he’s saying feel forced and overperformed. The reason I say this relates to inexperience is because once the song starts and the lyrical cycle begins again, that’s not the case. “Until the End of Everything,” on which he backs himself vocally and touches on harmonies here and there, marks one of Stay Awake’s most effective arrangements and most lasting melodies. Even the feedback shortly before the four-minute mark and that fades back and forth through the last minute of the song feels purposeful and impeccably placed behind Scheidt’s soft picking. Really, it’s the pacing and, at the end, the drama in the spoken delivery that derails the beginning and forces the music to reclaim the momentum that “When Time Forgets Time” set into motion, which, thankfully, it does. (I’ll say here as well that in the two times I’ve seen Scheidt perform “Until the End of Everything” live, he’s delivered the spoken part quicker and more effectively.)
In addition to furthering the development of the acoustic/electric interplay, “In Your Light” also incorporates piano and finds Scheidt making his second lyrical reference to “the shore,” which had also showed up in the opener and of course on YOB’s “Upon the Sight of the Other Shore” from Atma. Hard to say if he’s purposefully drawing a line through his lyrical work, but if so, the advent of personal tropes is almost inevitable for someone who to date has been largely drawn to similar themes – spirituality, Western explorations of Eastern philosophies, the inevitable failure in the quest to attain perfection, and so on – and he puts them to a variety of uses. “In Your Light” is the moment on the record most reminiscent of Scott Kelly’s work and arguably the least psychedelic of the tracks on Stay Awake, but an effective regrounding after “Until the End of Everything” and a subtly complex arrangement. It sounds honest. It sounds earnest in a folk tradition. For that, it’s well met by “The Price,” which follows and distinguishes itself with insistent strumming and, near its middle, a genuine solo. A lyric indulgence in the repetition of the line “Damn my eyes/I watched it slip away,” ultimately falls somewhat flat, however hypnotic the guitar line underscoring it might be and how poignant the lyrics wind up being, though Scheidt’s bottom-of-the-mouth delivery of those lines could very well form the basis of a vocal style separate from YOB but still characteristically his own, whereas much of the vocalizing on Stay Awake draws on his cleaner style in that band. “The Price” reaches a solid apex in its last two minutes and is a model of balancing indulgence with movement-based songwriting. Wind and sparse acoustics begin the 12-minute album climax “Breathe,” which despite being nearly like two songs tied together by a similar mood and feel is also the most accomplished execution of psychedelic folk of the outing. Scheidt purposefully plucks notes and gradually layers in a context for gorgeous vocalizing, building the song to a quirky crescendo over the next several minutes before being once again subsumed into the wind and having to start all over.
He does, though. At 6:15, just past the halfway point, “Breathe” begins its second progression much as it started the first. The acoustics are sweet and minimal and well layered, and when the vocals come back in, they recall the still rudimentary but potential-filled delivery of “The Price” while high-pitched backing vocals (which had shown up in the first part of the song as well) add a sense of quirk and individuality. There is a long fade, and for more than a minute, there’s just the wind before a ringing bell leads to silence and, consequently, the closing title-track. “Stay Awake” begins with a moodier progression – not to say that anything before it had been lacking in terms of mood – but in terms of displaying emotional range, the frustration that seeps through the cyclical guitar line more than gets its point across, and Scheidt conveys a desperate, confused sensibility in his singing without overdoing it. The finale also provides a clear, memorable chorus, which Stay Awake had prior steered away from in terms of structure, so it’s one more move that shows promise for future growth within the form. Perhaps that’s the level on which the album most succeeds: in setting the foundation for future experiments and explorations in Scheidt’s solo work. There are hints toward arrangement depth (whispers, backing vocals, guitar layering, the piano on “In Your Light,” etc.) and different modes of songwriting, a variety of singing and playing techniques and emotions shown while a consistency of atmosphere is maintained, so already I’d call Stay Awake a successful venture, but there are so many of those hints that as a fan of Scheidt’s work, I’m almost more interested in where he can go from here than I am in these songs themselves, and while I feel like that bodes well for future output, it doesn’t necessarily provide the most ringing endorsement for this material. That said, as much as Scheidt has adjusted himself to this aesthetic to make the record, so must listener expectation shift, and on repeat listens, Stay Awake’s clarity of purpose has only made itself more apparent.
Bottom line is Stay Awake is largely going to be subject to the preconceived notions of those who take it on. YOB fans who would be willing to follow Scheidt down any creative path that might catch his whim (not saying that’s what’s happening here, just citing a hypothetical) will have no problem acclimating themselves to a work of this quality, and those who long for YOB’s crushing tonality and doomed edge will remain unsatisfied by the melodic richness that these tracks present. I’d almost be more interested to hear what someone with no experience in listening to YOB might think of the album, but I expect the core of the audience it finds will be among those already indoctrinated and see no harm in that. Whatever they might or might not lead to and whatever they mean in the overall context of Scheidt’s catalog to date, these songs are worth approaching on their own level, and those who are of a mind to do that should be fine.
Tags: Eugene, Mike Scheidt, Mike Scheidt Solo, Mike Scheidt Stay Awake, Mike Sheidt Thrill Jockey, Oregon, Stay Awake, Thrill Jockey Records