- by Kevin Orton Rating:9 Release Date:2009-08-01 Label: Self Released
In 1993 and 1994 I marveled at the lo-fi DIY greatness of Will Oldham’s Palace Brothers recordings. They were raw, poetic and honest. Completely at odds with the over the top Grunge of Nirvana and Pearl Jam. It was a breath of fresh air. I got the same feeling the first time I heard Neptune Skyline’s Secret Fields. Neptune Skyline being Mike Pitts, formerly of the Garage band, The Kent 3. Secret Fields came out in 2009 but it's so timeless it could have come out in any era. Vocally, Pitts didn't quite have Will Oldham’s shakey adolescent warble. But like Oldham, he did have a unique vocal style all his own. About the closest one might get to describing it would be boxcar hobo meets Nikki Sudden. But add to that, the melodic introspection of Elliott Smith and the eerie after-hours atmosphere of Syd Barrett.
Secret Fields is an apt title, for herein lie many secrets laid out like an open field. Things kick off with the woozy slide guitar of ‘Baby Grand’. “No more light of day,” is one hell of a dark refrain but there’s an inviting ramshackle Country melancholy at work here. Its the life-affirming sound of hanging on by a thread. None of which quite prepares you for the ambient noise guitar of ‘Recidivism’. Propped up by what sounds like cardboard box percussion this song aptly fits the meaning of the word from which it takes its title: the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend. There's no doubt a compulsive lawlessness in this hazy, ornery track.
‘Chantepleure’ is defined as alternating between singing weeping. And this ghostly number also lives up to the title. Musically, it has all the comforts of a tight rope walk in the dark. There’s no denying this one’s a bit of a wrist slasher but the breezy Country swing of ‘Give My Regards To Harlem’ soon rushes in to stage an intervention. A wistful, breath-taking song. Suddenly the morose, funereal ‘Chantepleure’ is a distant memory.
The acoustic ballad, ‘Last Song Side One (Kelly)” warms up this frosty windowpane of an album. When synths suddenly introduce themselves, the song soars to unexpected heights. Musically, it’s an infectious Pop song holding hands with the Velvet Underground and Suicide. The captivating ballad, ‘Elizabeth’ follows, bringing a distinct Leonard Cohen Songs From A Room vibe to the proceedings.
The chilly instrumental ‘Owl War’ is more akin to a horror movie soundtrack and Indy Rock. The likes of Throbbing Gristle, Coil and Section 25 are no doubt touchstones for this tone poem. If tone poems aren’t your cuppa, never fear for ‘Winter Coats’ takes the edge off with some homespun acoustic warmth. The instrumentation may be spare, but some brisk military tattoo percussion keeps this sweet melody from nodding off.
‘From The Joyce Hotel’ really brings early Elliott Smith to mind more than any other track. “I can see you through the gloom’, Pitts murmurs. Any trace of atmospherics or synths are swept aside for a straightforward acoustic strum and some very Neil Young style harmonica. An album standout.
Secrets Fields bids you farewell with the instrumental, ‘Epic Soundtracks’. An ambient mix of synths and slide guitar. Musically, its the sound of being weightlessly adrift underwater with nothing but distant whale calls for company. A sound both unsettling and paradoxically comforting. Of course, none of 'Epic Soundtracks' bears much relation to the musician of the same name. So don't come here expecting an ode. Though Pitts certainly possessed a similar penchant for melody and melancholy. However one chooses to categorize it, ‘Epic Soundtracks’ is a mesmerizing coda to a haunting and evocative album. An album steeped in inescapable mystique and ennui. As eclectic as Pitts is, it all comes together harmoniously under this Neptune Skyline.
Full confession, Mike Pitts was a friend of mine. I loved the guy. He was brilliant, insanely talented and a musical encyclopedia. When able to ditch the black dog, he was sweet, funny and charming. He died suddenly last month. At an all too early age. Leaving friends shocked and perplexed at the loss. And yes, I miss him terribly. But I put on his music and it’s like having an ephemeral part of him back. And while his music is deserving of a much wider audience, it could be argued Mike stood in his own way at times. That said, all of his albums remain strong and compelling. The music speaks for itself. And you can find his music on Bandcamp for free. That’s the kind of guy he was. He gave it all away. Music was what Mike did. Its what he was put on this earth for. It's his legacy. Here for the world to enjoy. Making loneliness impossibly beautiful and yet, strangely consolable. His music heals loss. It soothes heartache. And it gives you a chuckle at the oddest, most unexpected moments. Much like the man himself. His music haunts like a mother fucking ghost. A friendly one. He was a special guy. And he made special music. When the rain is pissing down and the world is casting aspersions, take shelter under the Neptune Skyline. You will be rewarded.