The lush, melancholy world of Monk Parker is located diffusely, in the dark, hidden places of America. Empty midday honky-tonks, fogbound north-woods diners, and the shadowy, aging cinemas, libraries & museums wherein Saul Leiter, David Lynch, Bruno Schulz, Anselm Kiefer, Dennis Johnson & Wong Kar Wei yet reside… these are his natural home. Musically, his antecedents comprise a half-forgotten, mournful legion; having studied musicology at Columbia (as well as history at NYU and poetry at Bennington), his touchstones range across centuries and continents (collected beautifully here, on his LOST WORLD RADIO).
Parker came to the practice of music late, and after briefly forming and dismantling two bands in the early aughts (The Low Lows, Parker & Lily) his debut solo album arrived in 2016, coinciding with his 40th birthday. That album was the result of a sudden & debilitating –though ultimately temporary– illness that ended his years in New York City and took him back to the family farm outside Austin. There, over three years of recuperation, hundreds of hours of music was recorded, mostly in an unused welding shed by the banks of the Blanco River. Involving over 30 musicians (including friends from Okkervil River, The Polyphonic Spree, Heavy Trash, and Swans), the sessions revolved around a slew of vibraphones & vintage organs, steel guitars, a raft of cinematic strings and an intricately orchestrated brass section that manages to evoke both stax/volt-style balladry and Neutral Milk cacophony.
Pitchfork called that first record “languid, heart-wrenching… as vast and uplifting as an orchestra” and concluded “…far from depressing, the exquisite dejection of How the Spark Loves the Tinder is almost celebratory”. On the subsequent support tours BBC Radio named his on-air performance “marvelous… absolutely beautiful… one of our favorite sessions of the year”, the Spanish magazine El Pais declared a Barcelona concert “monstrously sad and brilliantly anachronistic…”, and Rolling Stone France said the release was “perfect, just perfect”.
It’s a year later, now, and Parker’s sophomore effort “Crown of Sparrows” is due to be released August 4th on New York City’s Grand Jury Music label. Drawn mostly from the same huge batch of sickbed recordings, the new album is both majestic and feral, it’s tension hidden beneath a scratched-surface warmth, a woozy country narcosis, with layers of feedback trembling just at the edge of earshot. It’s a dense, funereal sound evocative of Townes Van Zandt at his least folksy & most heroin-saturated. Stately, off-kilter dreamlike waltzes a la Richard Hawley or M. Ward build to explosive, gospel-tinged climaxes, and a woozy country narcosis kin to early My Morning Jacket or Phosphorescent alternates with feedback drones & buried noise melodies.
Parker himself is a natural product of an anachronistic environment —raised by sculptors and academics in a dirt-road commune outside Nacogdoches TX– and like him, Crown of Sparrows seems to worry not at all about being out-of-step with its time. It’s lyrics are stark though not bleak, and exalt small, everyday things with the simple focus of those who must leave those things behind. Parker’s distinctive singing voice, typically moving in slow-motion, often at half-speed to the band, recites it’s confessionals in a concentrated, reverberative, obliquely tragic prose. The title track immobilizes a story of perfect, fleeting happiness, preserving it in amber to emphasize it’s otherwise-ephemeral nature. The album closer, “Drowned Men”, incongruously speaks of night life and romance from a position beyond anxiety, in the peaceful cadences of the already-dead. Throughout, the songs illuminate as if from a distance the desperate pleasures of the beautiful people (“off we float, thin and pretty as lost kites / off to bargain badly for our lost nights”). They cast a stoic, loving eye on our current end-of-the-world-as-carnival. They are, in the end, happy to be sad.