Spend enough time listening to WYEP in a given week and chances are, at one time or another, you will be handed a large, healthy fix of boring, listless adult contemporary folk. This isn’t so much a criticism as much as a fact of life: for every amazingly peculiar Tom Waits track (a striking thing to hear on a four-minute lunch break drive, trust me) Rosemary Welch manages to play, there is, in equal measure, a Jonatha Brooke tune (yeah, who?) and a Indigo Girls song you wish you never heard.
If there is any benefit to this daily phenomenon, it is my ability to assess Pittsburgh folk ensemble summer-winter and their debut record Alone is Yes (whose lead single “It Made You Cry” is currently being played on WYEP) with a more judicious eye. To put it bluntly, there’s enough crap on the Midday Mix that I feel I know a good indie folk record when I hear one. And Alone is Yes is more than a good folk record, it’s a devastating one.
The project is almost entirely driven by local singer/songwriter Terry O’Hara who has enlisted the help of no less than 12 musicians (friends, neighbors, collaborators) to fill out his collection of sparse, down-tempo folk songs. But make no mistake, Alone is Yes possesses a dark vein of elected solitude. O’Hara easily evokes the image of a man and his guitar holed up in some forsaken winter cabin, alone in his dreams, with vivid clarity. He also shares more than a strong lineage with Mark Kozalerk of Red House Painters and Sun Kil Moon and The Bends-era Radiohead, balancing insouciant lyrical musings with an atmosphere that is heavy, foreboding and palpable.
“All of the days are dead,” the first words of the album, ignite the slow burn of “Summer’s Bound to End,” a track that cautiously swells with violin strings, twinkling pianos, banjos, and O’Hara’s defeated yet sincere vocals. “Tired,” the album’s most overt reference to Radiohead, hums with a muted electronic backdrop and works as an insomniac’s day dream: surreal, slightly paranoid and exhausted. As O’Hara attempts to make heads or tails of the stream of consciousness imagery (“stacked up microwaves shake like trees”) he finally exhales “I’m so tired.”
The album’s lead single “It Makes You Cry,” laced with slide guitars and some more subtle electronics, comes the closest to a traditional folk tune. It wanders at a steady pace before fading out into the darkness, giving way to the final couplet of “Counting on You” and “Untitled.”
“You can’t get it right,” the album’s final words, are “Untitled”‘s only lyrics, repeated by O’Hara wistfully in the track’s final minute, surrounded by what could be considered the crescendo of Alone is Yes. The meaning of those words are difficult to decipher. Even after listening to Alone is Yes completely about ten times now, I am left wondering. I will say that “Untitled” is a gorgeous coda and Alone is Yes was no doubt a labor of love. Terry O’Hara has brought together a small symphony of collaborators to create an elegiac, beautiful, singular sound.