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Surrounded By Lights
Artist: Jesse Sprinkle
©2008 Blind Records
Length: 12 Tracks / 44:35
Jesse Sprinkle has become quite the well-rounded individual these days. As the former drummer for poor old lu, circa mid-1990’s, and filling the bill with Demon Hunter and Dead Poetic for a few seasons not too long ago, his musical engineering side, plus the family thing, has swallowed him whole these days. Formerly from Oregon, he makes home with wife and four children in Avon, NY, a small-blink-and-your-through-it town in Western New York. Non-descript is a term I would use to describe Bluebrick Recordings, a studio indiscreetly located right next door and co-run with George Hochbrueckner, a native Western New Yorker. Now that the plug has been made, on with the review.
Meeting Jesse recently, I have gained an appreciation for simplicity of sound. Very organic and laid back is Surrounded By Lights, which is aptly handled by Jesse, with some local friends lending their talents throughout. He has become a versatile rhythm/acoustic guitarist as well.
For a self-produced indy disc, this is strong, fluid, somber, and yet upbeat. Strong tracks include, but are not limited to “Longing for the Ordinary”, “This Game of God” (my favorite cut), “The Long Way Home”, and “Steel Buildings and Caskets”. Do yourself a favor and get your hands on this little disc. Support local music wherever it is created. They need us.
Gorgeous, stripped-down acoustics coupled with careful harmonies typify this offering from Jesse Sprinkle.
Jesse was a founding member of the legendary '90's Christian rock band Poor Old Lu and is a former member of Morella's Forest, Demon Hunter, Dead Poetic, A Cold Vein, and Burning Daylight. Unless I am mistaken, in all of these cases, he served as the drummer. Such is not the case on Blind Records' 2008 release Surrounded By Lights, which, if you include Jesse's time calling himself "The World Inside", is approximately his 12th solo recording. On this, as with all aforementioned solo projects, Jesse basically handles everything - drums certainly, but also guitars, vocals, and generally any other instrumentation you hear. Despite releasing such a litany of material over the last decade, as well as arduous touring with Demon Hunter for a period, very few are familiar with his solo work, which is characterized by harmonies - at times soaring, at times subdued - and beautiful and simple acoustic guitar work laced nicely with other orchestration.
Jesse categorizes this record as "dark pop", and it's a fitting moniker. The overall tone of the disc is shaded, and the mood is decidedly quiet and suspended in thought and contemplation. It comes through in the downtempo pacing as well as the lyrics, such as this example from midway through the disc:
There comes a moment when
you have to touch
I could not protect it
This isn't the sort of record that sticks in your head, as a rule. It is, however, the sort of record that has a distinguishable "sound" that is very attractive to have backing up specific moods. If you're feeling subdued and mournful, melancholy, or perhaps apprehensive and anxious for a future to come... Sprinkle provides the soundtrack.
This guilt within
Jesse has a great falsetto - a rare thing amongst singer/songwriters of late (two others that come to mind immediately are The Rocket Summer's Bryce Avary and Pedro the Lion's David Bazan), and, even better, has a great ear for harmonies - another rarity. Both are put to extensive use on Surrounded By Lights.
If I was forced to draw comparisons, I'd say that Jesse sounds like his brother Aaron Sprinkle (also known to release poppy acoustic guitar records) might if he were prone to slave over his records as much as he slaves over his production work for Tooth & Nail. Which is to say, Jesse has layered Surrounded By Lights with enough complexity to give it depth, without sacrificing the sublimity that is "a man and his guitar". Those with a penchant for the sort of things you frequently hear strummed and hummed at coffeehouses and small pubs will find plenty to wash themselves in here.
Other than the transcendent pacing and "feel" of the music, the decidedly "dark" part of the "dark pop" found on Surrounded By Lights is the lyrics. Jesse doesn't deal in happy, optimistic generalizations here - there is an urgency and a stirring evidence of hard-wrought labour in the words. Consider the previous examples quoted as well as this:
Sleepwalking to destinations
Keys dropping and games
evolved to wars
Fold me over, lighting...
Lyrically, there's a lot to ingest. Jesse makes no attempt to mask his expansive grasp on the English language - and it shows on every track with plenty of excellent and complicated constructions to work your head through. There's a lot of spiritual content as well, much of which is difficult to make heads and tails of because some of it is presented as quotation from a character in a song, whereas other parts are Jesse himself speaking. The general tone of it seems to be neutral - questioning and curious, not necessarily attacking or defending. The best thing to compare it to would be the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which is quoted in the liner notes:
Light is sweet,
However many years a man
Ecclesiastes 11:7-8 (NIV)
The recurring theme of the album is in it's title: we are Surrounded By Lights, even amidst the memory of our "days of darkness". This album appears to be just such a memoir - memories of dark days in Jesse's life, captured, redeemed, and shared, hopefully, with those who will listen.
The bottom line is that this is a darkly atmospheric, beautifully organic, harmonious, soaring, haunting collection of songs. Play it on those early mornings when you scrape yourself out of bed, those late nights when you're chained to the keyboard to polish off that last assignment, or those times when the world makes so little sense you just need to retreat from it. Highly recommended listening.
Standout Tracks: Better Places, Between The Ice And Earth, Lights Of June, Wait Or Want, Steel Buildings And Caskets, The Legend Of Saint Agnes.