[Click play above to stream Quin Galavis’ My Life in Steel and Concrete in full. Album is out now on Super Secret Records.]
True, the new double-LP My Life in Steel and Concrete from Austin-based singer-songwriter Quin Galavis might be singular in the construction of its title, and in the moniker of the performer who indeed is at its core, but it’s far from a solo offering. Long ways off. The Super Secret Records release, which spans 20 tracks/75 minutes of has-a-lot-to-say varied craftsmanship, instead often boasts the sound of a full four-piece, if not more, and like Galavis‘ prior work under his own name (as opposed to his work with bands like Nazi Gold, False Idol and The Dead Space), it brings in a host of guests from around Austin’s populous weirdo scene, including Thor Harris (Swans), and in the past, Eva Vonne of Sans Soleil.
Songs jump from style to style easily, from the joyous and string-inclusive Wes Anderson-ready indie of “Can’t Erase” to the more raging noise punk of “Dead Born,” blown out vocals and all, but being disjointed seems to be part of the fun for Galavis and company. Each side of the 2LP receives a subtitle — A is ‘The Tragedy of Miss Foster,’ B ‘The Long Walk of Mr. Morrow,’ C ‘The Tears of Lady Guadalupe’ and D ‘The Ancient Fire of Northway’ — but if there’s some narrative connecting them, I wouldn’t dare speculate as to its plotline.
Also worth noting that none of the characters mentioned in those subtitles are Galavis himself, so it’s entirely possible that My Life in Steel and Concrete, despite its autobiographical and somewhat indulgent veneer, isn’t about Galavis at all. Not knowing is part of what ultimately makes the record fun, in a similar fashion to how, as one track moves into the following à la the post-grunge crunch of “Distaste” going right into the Angels of Light-style neofolk of “Glorious Man,” it’s never quite clear what’s coming next. These shifts are stark, as noted, but what anchors My Life in Steel and Concrete across its considerable breadth is the songwriting.
No matter in what form Galavis and company — in the past his band has included Graham Low on bass/cello, Shelley McKann on keys/glockenspiel/vocals and Matt Hammer on drums, but the exact lineup here is unclear — choose to express this kind of post-modern disaffection of caring too much to care at all, it comes through with a defined structure, each track a world that seems to have its own rules and parameters that become clearer as it progresses, from the stomp and jangle of foreboding opener “Hand of Light” through how “Manuel’s Rose Garden” and “Powell’s Rose Garden” seem to mirror each other despite the varied theatrics contained within them.
Galavis is hardly the first songwriter to show range, but even more impressive are the turns of mood My Life in Steel and Concrete makes as it plays out and the fact that as the darkened echoes of “Turn You In” and the wrenching intensity of “Hate” move through the push of “Be Patient” into the minimalist pastoralia of “A Gift for Salt,” there’s no dip in the quality of execution or the seeming purposefulness of the arrangements. As easy as it is to tag Galavis as “experimental” and be done with the issue of classification — about as descriptive as tagging the moon as “round” — there’s very little even in the feedback peppering “Vile and Disgusting” that feels accidental.
Each side ultimately has its personality, though I’ll admit that’s harder to get a handle on in digital form than it probably would be on the vinyl, and a darker ambience unites much of the material, but Galavis saves some brighter moments for the final movement. “Idumea” — the title from a region in Southern Israel — is a retitled take on the 18th century hymn sometimes simply called “And am I Born to Die,” which Neil Young, Steve Von Till and Current 93 have also recorded in years past. Galavis‘ version is a stunner of a violen-led duet following the poetic drama of “Powell’s Rose Garden,” duly mournful but effective in capturing the feeling that they might be leading a chorus in a small, box-shaped church.
The subsequent tracks, from the swinging “Tree Burning” to the banjo-inclusive ramble of “Those Little Dreams” and into the Elton John-esque piano ballad of closer “Wake Up” let go of some of the severity of earlier cuts like “Dead Born” or “Hand of Light” or “Hate,” and if there is a narrative thread telling a story in My Life in Steel and Concrete, one imagines the album’s final side is where that story finds its resolution. In this way, ‘The Ancient Fire of Northway’ becomes a kind of exhale through which Galavis et al can at last breathe out, and the sense of relief is palpable from “Idumea” onward to the end.
Could it have been two albums instead of a 2LP? It probably could’ve been three, each with a different aesthetic, but the diversity of the songwriting and the immersiveness of the work as a whole would lose impact were such capitulations toward accessibility made. It’s supposed to be a challenge. That’s the idea.