It's a good think to see Secretly Canadian's alter ego Jagjaguwar returning to this kind of music both labels defended a few years ago, from Patrick Phelan to Richard Youngs, from South to Spokane, from Early Day Miners to Havergal.
The fact that he is the drummer and pianist of Bon Iver gives him visibility but his musical work is different. Honestly I have - and never had - no interest at all in Bon Iver which I found incredibly boring and unoriginal, even if sincere, but from the first note to the last sound of this album, S. Carey belongs to a totally different register.
"All We Grow" seems to have been a lengthy project, built and recorded during touring pauses, like sometimes debut albums, when they resume all hopes and ambitions, can be. Deep, subtle and restrained, clear, slow, melancholic, intelligible and well-written, Sean Carey's album leaves a strong impression. It brings to mind, at times, other records like Talk Talk / Mark Hollis, Gastr del Sol ("Camoufleur"), Patrick Phelan / South, The Blue Nile or Bed ("The Newton's Plum"), with obvious style references to Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but S. Carey's focus is on songwriting, where melodies are always the center point of importance even if atmosphere contributes to the complete achievement.
"All we grow" is a gentle, soft and meditative album, unoffensive at times, maybe it could be more tense or radical but as said before it's a debut album and as a whole it is really convincing. You need to immerse yourself into it for complete enjoyment and put yourself in a comfortable environment and lazy state of mind. A long train ride under gloomy skies and monotonous landscape may be the perfect background or the shelter of filtered lights and warm armchair, with herbal tea in a cup, while there is stormy and rainy weather on the other side of the window might fit perfectly too. You need to be half asleep, maybe with headphones, and in a purring state of mind in order to totally fit with what happens on it.
S. Carey earned a performance degree in classical percussion from the University of Wisconsin so technically he is an experimented multi-instrumentalist and is able to find a right balance with the less is more / more is less aesthetic perspective, so his song structures are very opened, avoid clichés but never lack of a backbone underneath, with piano, guitar, vocals, drums, glockenspiel, wind and string instruments. The less interesting parts of the album is when he comes closer of traditionally textured and arranged pop/folk songs.
"Move", the first track tastes like caramel, starts slowly, smoothly and sleepily, without falling into the sugary trap. Finger picked acoustic guitar and whispered layers of harmonized vocals and i can't decide if it's irritating or reassuring and there lays the strange success of this song, with the shift between a frozen intro and a warm melody. It's like warming up your hands after having played without gloves in the snow.
"We fell" starts with a tentative mix between Steve Reich and a depressive vocal melody à la Beach Boys, it takes two minutes for both sides to totally merge and rise high and higher in the sky, mind-blowing like the morning sun and the next three minutes are reserved to bliss.
"In the dirt" is the first masterpiece of "All we grow", a slow piano intro with later the addition of hand claps and other beats, here the percussion asset finds its perfect expression. The tension between the rhythmical parts and the lascivious vocals is wonderful and refreshing, with quiet parts when rhythms recede before coming back later upbeat and in full force for a second round. Here S. Carey touches with his fingers something unique and his own, gimmicky, a trick he will be able to use again, refine and develop more on future albums. The ambient instrumental "Rothko Fields" is placed next as a respiration.
Before the melancholy of “Mother” which would have benefited of slowcore drums à la Radar Bros / Red House Painters or of engaging beats à la Blue Nile. I have the feel this song could have taken off in such direction, in a better way than with the use of second vocals. But maybe on the next record S. Carey will have collaborators and gain some space between his voice and the music.
"Action" is the second masterpiece of "All we grow", here we are clearly sitting in the slowcore territory, with a nervous, anxious and mournful electric guitar, played with tense math-rock accented drums. We are not so far from territories explored by bands like Helms, Victory at Sea, C-Clamp, For Carnation or Ex-Chittle, I wish he would have fully developed this song with the inclusion of vocals instead of letting it as a 3 minutes long instrumental. There is clearly a strong potential here but once again such music can't be played easily alone.
The softness of "In the stream" is then welcome and reminds me of the best moments of the Belgian band Raymondo, along with harmonic moments of L'Altra when second female vocals come to complete S. Carey's ones.
On "All we grow", S. Carey returns to the electric guitar and it sounds like it is the best instrument through which he can add intimacy and strong melancholic feelings to his songs. Nowhere on this album he seems more lost and sincere than here, closer than grace
The last track of the album is his attempt at something more ambitious, orchestral and complex but also with an unusual structure much more intuitive than logical, it gives hints about what may come back later from him, it shows he has got plenty of room in his compositional inspiration before meeting the limits of his sensitivity.
"All we grow" is a successful debut album but also a debut album where he is still in the process of discovering his own musical identity. But we can have no doubts about the strength and steadiness of his songwriting. It is a record to keep and to complete with future ones. I hope the wait won't be too long.