You’ve been warned by your parents, by movies and television, and now you’re gonna hear it from me : looks can be deceiving. When I first received Marco Panella’s latest, Eastern Landscapes, the press materials made reference to “American Primitive acoustica”, “layered landscapes” and “modal/dissonant jazz” in describing the sound of this LP… these, coupled with the hazy, gorgeous cover photograph, had me absolutely convinced that I was in for some kind of abstract drone-guitar record. As it turns out, both the descriptions and my assumptions were somewhat off-mark. Panella, whose previous work has focused on fringe pop and electronics, is actually a dyed-in-the-wool singer/songwriter, one who melds lo-fi, rock, and loose Americana with an intriguingly skewed compositional flare.
On first listen, many of the songs on Eastern Landscapes play like ragged slacker anthems, mostly thanks to Panella’s deadpan vocal delivery, which strikes me as a mixture of the timbre of D.Charles Speer and Soltero’s dogged tunefulness. Panella isn’t trying to bowl anybody over with histrionics, and there is nary a trace of emotion in his voice on any of this album’s eight tracks; rather, the vocals act more as a base, a mainspring for a series of unpredictable arrangements, song structures and overdubs.
Most of the guitar playing on Landscapes is presented in layers of acoustic and electric, tense with slight tuning discrepancies. First track “Carry You Home” sets the tone, its loose guitars trading pretty, occasionally dirge-y phrases in the company of spare cello. It’s hard to establish what may or may not be melody, but this is what gives the song, and much of the disc, it’s compelling texture… the tunes sound at once out of focus and completely confident.
“Joey” seems at first more tightly wound than the opener, with a somewhat solid rhythm section and well defined chord changes. There is a 90’s Palace Music/Will Oldham vibe here, and the track would be right at home on Viva Last Blues, were it not for the unusual, sometimes jarring guitar work. “High School, Southern Vermont” takes the formula a bit further, with stacked melodic and atonal guitars that only seem to really coalesce when the verses transition to the choruses… and even then, only barely. It’s almost Shaggs-esque, feeling like each “player” (Panella covers all the guitar, drum and dulcimer work on the entire record) is on a different bumpy road, though all traveling in the same direction, toward the same strange destination.
The second side of the LP is somewhat more reflective, with crystalline fingerpicked patterns and evocative chord sequences throughout. There is less overt dissonance in the overdubs on this side, and songs like “On My Shoulder” and the reimagined traditional “Wildwood Flower” have the guitars strongly reenforcing the melodies. Album closer “M” could be the most beautiful track on the disc, and features Panella’s wife Anna Bario on vocals. “M” is an adaptation of a poem of the same name, written by Panella’s grandfather, naturalist poet Montgomery Hare.
Eastern Landscapes isn’t going to be for everyone, and it’s not the kind of guitar-oriented album that we usually cover on Work & Worry at all. “American Primitive”? “Modal jazz?” No, not really. But Landscapes is rewarding all the same, as an endearing, solipsistic slice of left-field Americana. Marco Panella is playing by his own set of rules, and in my opinion, he’ s doing it pretty successfully.