Ken Stringfellow - Soft Commands

By liz

Ken Stringfellow - Soft Commands
YepRock Records

Ken StringfellowAfter about 10 hours being out and about on the Chicago city streets, I found myself walking about 9 blocks home from a strange bus stop without my usual accouterments. Accouterments, being the ipod. In my silence of sirens, traffic and sprinklers I was given a good chance to reflect upon the hours of beaches, urban jungle, rare sites and general weekend merriment when I realized that I was humming. It took me a second to place the song, but it was 'For Your Sake' by Ken Stringfellow.

I thought to myself about the oddity of a full day of noises, films, conversations and how strange it was to have Ken's song pop into my head. That song was not what i had been listening to earlier in the day. It was nowhere near the top of my mind... but it was reverberating... and doing so of it's own accord.

This, I determined during the rest of my walk home, was the sign of blissful song writing. When the song could detach itself from the source and become so ingrained as to be your company in the darkness... the artist had done something right.

It shouldn't surprise me that I came to this through Ken's music. I'm not sure what it is about his songwriting, but it has a rare quality that makes his music immediately personal. It does surprise me that I was so moved by Ken's new record 'Soft Commands'. Released earlier this summer on YepRoc, I was originally drawn to only a few songs but not the whole record. I adored his last release 'Touched' in it's entirety with it's ballads to suicidal friends and depressing odes of solitude. His honesty on record with 'Touched' was missing the usual cleverness artists have of hiding their true intentions in catchy beats and subtlety written lyrics. It was an open view into his world... and an admirable one.

My first few listens of 'Soft Commands' didn't leave me feeling the same way. Sure, he had those some well written hooks and i immediately adored the Spector-esque sound in Track 4 (When U Find Someone) but it seemed too finished, too mature. The rawness and simultaneous clarity of Ken's voice and solitary guitar has a lot of power that I thought was overdone with 'Soft Commands'... but what it took was to let the record settle. It's merits were not instantly recognizable, but they were there in the darkness when all else was stripped away.

'Soft Commands' is an uneven record and I initially faulted it for that. It seems more of a collection of afterthoughts than an organized view into an artist. It contains strange dub songs (so appropriately titled 'Dawn of the Dub of the Dawn feat. Gaffa Man'), harmonies pulled directly from 'Surfin' U.S.A.', and French piano lullabies owing quite a bit to Michele Polnareff and Burt Bacharach. But who among us has merely one style in us, only one way of drawing a picture and painting a view of ourselves through words? In it's diversity, 'Soft Commands' excels... even if it leaves the average listeners saying "Who in the hell is this?".

Ken StringfellowThis record contains some awe inspiring individual songs, particularly the synth heavy 'For Your Sake' laced with layers of Ken's pristine tenor in a song of wandering and salvation. "If you grimly go ahead... If you gaze with longing... If you grip the crumbling edge... If you gallop towards the horizons... If you gawk at the spectacular... If you gauge your success... If you gorge yourself... If you're greedy all the time... If you gain no new ground... If you're grinding to a halt... I'll come around." Not afraid to take a stance with the current world political climate... Ken takes a momentous stab at the Bush administration with "When U Find Someone" as he paints George W caught in a lover's obsession with the former dictator of Iraq, "Breathing in that desert air, somewhere, where no one can touch us. Sharing a dream as a prisoner screams hands on the switch as we throw it - together. When you find someone who loves you like that, you want them back in your life." But Ken's ode to political destruction is wrapped up so succinctly in a wall of sound that he's created an all together new creature cooing in Wilson-esque harmonies with Sarah Shannon (of Velocity Girl) on backing vocals. The beauty and peace of this song overwhelms the strange weave of political stalking.

'Soft Command's range is the perfect glimpse into the Ken Stringfellow of today... the boy from Washington who is now a man of France. He has been at the helm of so many of indie's precious bands and despite his own songwriting ability and history hides himself behind more famous names on stage like R.E.M. and Eddie Vedder. Ken has become more than he once was as a struggling kid from Seattle... he is now a musician of the world recording and writing this record on more continents than the average person sees in their lifetime. He's to be commended on 'Soft Commands' for showing an artist can mature by demonstrating the joy and peace someone can find in growth.