David Bernabo officially drops The Inn this Friday, but Pop Press is thrilled to stream the album in its entirety today. It’s a solo record and the 10th on the Ongoing Box imprint. Before we begin, it seems necessary to explain the artist’s intention with The Inn. Bernabo (of Host Skull and countless other creative endeavors) set out to write, record, and produce an album under a system of strict guidelines with the intention of learning and creating something new. Now, it’s not unusual for a band to give itself certain limitations, or pick a producer who will bring a specific aesthetic. While recording The Soft Bulletin, the Flaming Lips said “NO GUITARS!,” a drastic change from the records that made them popular. And what happened? A marvelous record that stands as, IMO, their best.
Not unlike the Lips, Bernabo decided to travel a similar road and start by recording three hours of drum improvisation. Adding to the unorthodox genesis of The Inn is the organic songwriting that followed: “The songs were written and recorded to the drum tracks, generally in a three or four hour time period. I didn’t write down any of the music and most of the guitar tracks were done with alternate tunings,” he writes on his website (also curious is the bass being recorded on two fretless strings of a one-of-a-kind 16-string double neck guitar….how appropriate for Bernabo to use two of sixteen total strings on one instrument, talk about limitations…). So what we have is 33 minutes of improvised drums with odd guitar overdubs which can be assumed to be forgotten for they seem to be almost as improvised as the drums. For vocals, a bizarre chorus of Bernabos comes in and out of the stereo field, mixed with depth and layered to great effect.
First standing out to me is the great “Care-Churning Stone.” Beginning with warm feedback and a plaintive electric melody, drums enter with a percussive groove complimented by that crazy fretless bass, giving it neo-soul vibes. Acoustic guitar ramblings transition to warped barbershop vocals singing: “Care-churning sleep, here we go in/Back to the river/Ham to hum crush.” The lyrics describe dreamlike vignettes complimented by amorphous instrumentation. Exotic shakers and twinkling acoustic guitars evoke early Animal Collective moments. The song drifts away before we’re severely jarred by the next track, “Table in the Circle,” a frenetic piece showcasing how the drums drive the rest of the instrumentation. Everything is locked into the linear performance that transcends any pop-music reference, more akin to some sort of free-jazz performed by Jim O’Rourke and Greg Saunier than any traditional measure of rock music. Close mics reveal minute details of sticks and brushes moving over the skins of the drums bringing you closer into the song and the inherent rush of improvisation.
Although this album started as drum improvisations, there is no shortage of great guitar work. Songs like “Spread Over This World” and “Now See-Thru” are quick to demonstrate Bernabo’s aptitude on harmonizing guitar lines and fingerpicked acoustic guitar. Angular intervals scatter the album as a result of the unpredictable drum patterns, but with a smoothness thanks to Bernabo’s superior performances. The production and engineering of The Inn is impossible to ignore at this point. What I find most intriguing is the general dryness of all the instrumentation. Bernabo has chosen to use only guitars, but employs a variety of tonal quirks, paired with sudden changes and rerouting Google Maps couldn’t even produce. Drums are close-miked, putting us in the drum throne. Acoustic guitars are often double-tracked and panned hard left and right, filling your headphones (do yourself a favor and listen to the sonic niceties in a good pair of headphones). Lead vocals are upfront and clear, revealing little growls, grit, and break in Bernabo’s voice. Backing vocals add a bit of depth, but ultimately serve to enhance the close-mike feel of the rest.
The Inn is a superior experiment from a known experimenter, giving us eleven songs that simply, exist. Bernabo plans no release show, for there isn’t a band to perform, and the musical parts have been forgotten beyond their recorded remnants. The album closes with “Winter God Light,” a joyous barrage of fuzz and percussion with Bernabo professing: “I was the maker, the maker of fools/I spit into the alleyway to watch it bloom/I was the vessel, the vessel for love/I walked in through the door and what fell was blood.” I think these lines reveal Bernabo’s relationship to The Inn; he is a maker, but of fools. He is a maker, but as a vessel for a greater force, that being love. He spits, and it blooms. He arrives, and the result is blood, the raw stuff the heart, the symbol of love, pumps relentlessly. Like the heart, like love, Bernabo opened his own and pumped the creative goodness that is always there, putting faith in his abilities as a vessel to conduct the interminable flow of music.
As promised, stream and purchase The Inn below: