The line between art and marketing seems to blur more than ever before: it’s often the most palatable songs, games, and movies that succeed commercially, but typically that’s at the sacrifice of substance or artistic statements. That’s not to say that there are not creators who find a proper balance between public appeal and creative expression, but it’s a challenge that not everything has true artistic form.
It’s strikingly evident that Milwaukee-based Cairns is not chasing the masses. Headed by John Larkin, the group released the genre-defying Entanglement this past December. Equal parts claustrophobically-dissonant cheerfully- melodic (seen well on the album’s first two tracks), Cairns sits on the intersection of slowcore, lofi indie, psychedelic rock, folk, and any number of other subgenres. Field recordings and pervasive wind arrangements all coalesce here for an experience that is oddly familiar but hard to place – a sonic deja vu, if you will.
The writing process for Entanglement is not different from many bands’ approaches. Larkin wrote most of the music himself, and the rest of the band helped reinterpret the pieces with their own instrumental gifts. The rest of the team includes Eli Smith (guitar, samples), who creates/performs experimental music under his own name and as Honeymooners, Caley Conway (bass), who has a solo project and plays in Field Report, Joe Kirschling (drums), who plays in SIN BAD, and Sam Pekarske (flute, harmonium) who mainly writes and performs poetry. It’s a strong cast of musical talent that allows for incredible collaboration.
Entanglement‘s composition are not something you might expect to work at first. After all, it’s rare to see analog synths, acoustic guitar, and trumpet work together to form the base of a beach rock track. Nonetheless, Larkin and crew pull it off. It’s the instrumentation that is fundamental to the album – some tracks do have vocals, but even those songs featuring sweeping instrumental passages. Larkin understands his craft well enough to create an odd, albeit compelling, approach to songwriting that strides the divide between convention and chaos.
This is far from a casual album, which sadly may turn some listeners off. None of the songs follow conventional lengths or structures; about half of the songs are over four minutes long (the longest exceeding seven minutes), while the other tracks are two minutes or less and typically serve as interludes. It’s certainly not the album that will have you singing along first go; it instead is an immersive work with all kinds of subtly. It’s cinematic and summery for the large part, and it certainly could be thrown on in the background, but that would seem to be a disservice.
Cairns’ music is undeniably niche, but isn’t that what good art should be? Entanglement is so layered and varied that it’s doubtful two listeners will have the same reaction. The hushed vocals and cryptic lyrics demand even more interpretation from the listeners. It’s for these reasons that Cairns can be seen as true artists of songwriting.
Cairns plans on playing several shows throughout the Milwaukee area before retiring to the studio to release more music later this year. You can follow Cairns on Facebook to stay up to date on news and shows.