William Ryan Fritch: Behind The Pale
Releases by William Ryan Fritch tend to split themselves into instrumental and vocal groupings, even if the latter has grown dominant in recent times. Earlier this year, The Old Believers and Sum of its Parts were reissued by Lost Tribe Sound to remind us of his stellar gifts as an instrumental composer, and now we have Behind The Pale, a ten-track collection that serves as a sterling representation of his vocal-based approach.
While many a Fritch song is suffused with anxiety, that part of his emotional toolkit seems especially pronounced on the new set. If so, there's a good reason for it: not only was Behind The Pale created when his wife was pregnant with their daughter (with all the unsettlement that such an impending event engenders), its production also concurred with the baby's arrival three months before her due date, an arrival that threw all of her parents' late-pregnancy plans into disarray.
In Fritch's estimation, the album reflects the emotional storms he and his wife experienced during the pregnancy and birth processes, from joy and excitement to worry, fear, and disorientation. In his mind, Behind The Pale's first half is characterized by turbulence, anxiety and worry being the primary states and the music alternating between desperation and ecstasy. The second half, predictably, feels more hopeful and calm without distancing itself completely from the tone of the opening songs. String instruments of varying kinds (electric and acoustic guitars, mandolin, violin, cello, harp), keyboards, acoustic bass, vibes, drums, percussion, and, of course, vocals constitute the primary sound resources involved, though other instruments no doubt also worked their way into the material.
These plaintive and oft-cryptic settings thrum with life, their haunted character and epic sweep intensified by Fritch's heartfelt vocal delivery. Particularly affecting is “In Our Blood,” a lilting, country-tinged ballad delivered pitch-perfectly by the singer-songwriter. That aforementioned shift in tone from the first to the second half, by the way, declares itself in the transition from “In Our Blood” to “Greedy Things” when the latter bursts forth with a joy that's almost palpable. Though calmer by comparison, the subsequent “Supposed” exudes a peacefulness that suggests anxieties subdued and turmoil overcome, and the elation that new parenthood brings is expressed touchingly during the closing “What the Future Holds” (“And each time you were in my arms I knew that I held all my future would hold”).
Fritch's musical world is abundantly rich, yet it's also somewhat hermetic. In writing and performing everything himself, a zone has been demarcated wherein he comfortably operates. Yet while such hermeticism can lead to insularity, in his case it's resulted in an expansive and highly personalized vision that's unlike any other artist's. If there's a weakness to Behind The Pale, it has to do with tempo. The album's songs largely hew to a similarly slow pace, and over the course of the album that sameness grows ever more noticeable. As one plodding piece after another arrives, one longs for a livelier song to break the pattern, something uptempo and animated in place of another dirge. The ears perk up when an instrumental, clarinet-driven episode surfaces midway through “Depths of Our Minds,” said reaction indicative of how great a difference a simple change in the presentation can make.
That caveat aside, Fritch shows himself again to be a remarkable multi-instrumentalist; he's also a gifted songwriter, and his output, as has been repeatedly noted by this scribe and others, is prodigious; music pours from him inexhaustibly, so much so that he's become something like the musical equivalent of Joyce Carol Oates. In keeping with the literary theme, the kind of fertile gothic ground Fritch tills on this album reminds me of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor and Peter Matthiessen's incredible Shadow Country. There's an earthy quality to Fritch's material, vocal-based or otherwise, that makes it feel as if it's emerged from some Southern swamp.
No discussion of the release would be complete without mentioning its presentation, from the large vertical case that houses its CD and lyrics sheet to the striking photographs (from The National Museum of Health and Medicine) on its covers. Whatever the connection between the album content and front cover, there's no denying the arresting effect produced by the curious image of a man whose beard appears to be growing out of his mouth rather than below it.