Chris Otepka’s vocals hurt and hurt deep. With a voice that churns out exhausted disillusionment like it was his second language, every track he writes easily takes on a dimension of quiet desperation without breaking a sweat. With his latest one-man, indie folk project The Heligoats, Otepka’s vocals still retain that cautious draw that can sound weathered, irritated and composed simultaneously, nearly falling off the edge of reason in the midst of a world that runs on contradiction. Like the know-it-all-but-don’t-give-a-shit kid in the back of the class undermining the clueless teacher with every quiet correction he makes under his breath, Otepka isn’t looking to illuminate some grand revelation, he’s just trying not to sink deeper into the abyss. All of this is done with the bouncing passion of the best folk acts, efficiently turning spiritual poverty into poetry.
His debut EP The End of All-Purpose simmers with stream of consciousness, rapid-fire lyrics and pulsing guitars not unlike classic Neutral Milk Hotel, allowing every song to exhibit the uneasy qualities of an impending implosion. The music radiates with undertones that are both ironic and sincere, as Otepka elucidates his feelings through surrealist imagery, longing statements of abstraction and details of crumbling relationships that sound strangely euphoric. With a kind of lyrical density that is seldom realized in the annals of indie rock, tracks can quickly switch gears between frantic moments of confusion and slow, unmitigated elegies of disappointment.
What truly pains Otepka is the real question as he cleverly addresses which emotions are significant and which are feigned in the early gem “Movieguns.” Pairing a rich acoustic strum with jaunty violins, Otepka assures that “these guns are not real guns, they’re movie guns,” forcing the listener wonder what sentiments thereafter are to be trusted. “Been a Drill” bares striking sonic qualities to Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The King of Carrot Flowers pt. 1” trading in the flexible organ for jubilant horns across the chorus, but manages to keep up with a fragmented narrative that practically flies out of the speakers.
With “Kind/Brutal” Otekpa begins by listing the things he claims he finds valuable in his significant other, doing this amidst spare, spiraling acoustics, skeptically telling him self “I love her cause she tries everything I try…she don’t mind when I turn on the appliances/and I scream at the top of my lungs.” Concluding his own reasons for compatibility might barely hold water, Otepka storms into the booming chorus, all fiddles and thunderous drums, while exclaiming “I know I love her!” like he was under oath. “You Win” might be the most haunting of those elegies I mentioned earlier, opening with a dreamy guitar line that wanders into the track like an amnesiac in a fugue state, waiting to be startled from an ominous haze of smoke and fantasy. “You win,” he asserts quietly and without pretense in the first lyrics, admitting defeat with an earnest streak of subtle contempt.
Hopefully, Chris Otepka should find himself among the likes of John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats, Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel, and Andrew Bird for the sheer literary density of his lyrics and themes. It’s likely his first full album will bring greater notice to the consistently, top-notch songwriting he exhibited on The End Of All-Purpose, but a string of fervant live shows should do quite a big to generate momentum. Pittsburgh is luckily treated to his second show in a about a month, playing on Fat Tuesday at The Garfield Artworks, and now playing along side indie folk veterans Clem Snide at Club Cafe on Sunday, March 15 at 6:00 pm. If anyone reading this review does happen to stop by that show on Sunday night, see if you can catch a glimpse of Otepka’s eyes when he shouts “I know I lover her!” at the apex of “Kind/Brutal” and tell me if you believe him or not.