Thanks to Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, the cabin-in-the-woods album is becoming a rock ‘n’ roll cliche, overblown in its mythology and predictable in its result. Justin Vernon would probably tell you the same thing. It’s not that Emma isn’t a great album (it is), but even with its vocal mutations, it sounds exactly like you think it would: a guy holed up during a rural Wisconsin winter, surrounded by nature, illness, and heartbreak.
When Evan Weiss announced that he, too, had secluded himself in a snowy cabin (this one in Vermont) to write the batch of songs that would eventually become Standards, you couldn’t help but wonder if he was overreaching for bare-bones authenticity, which of course wouldn’t be authentic at all. Was cutting himself off from “the schizophrenic distractions of modern technology and media” in Chicago going to result in something different for his main creative outlet, Into It. Over It.? Or would it yield something too self-aware in its sensitivity?
Thankfully, it’s the former, as Standards is by far the most bombastic album of Into It. Over It.’s career. At first, it’s tempting to chalk this up to the recording process. Where Emma, Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, and so many other great hermit LPs were written and laid to tape in remote locations, Weiss finished what he started at John Vanderslice’s Tiny Telephone Studio in the very un-secluded city of San Francisco. But before recording on the space’s renowned analog equipment, he fleshed out the arrangements until they were full-band declarations.
And yet, even if Weiss had recorded everything on an acoustic guitar, Standards likely wouldn’t sound all that downbeat or skeletal, since, when forming the album, he had something that Vernon and Springsteen did not: another person in the room. There’s no denying the influence of his writing partner and touring drummer, Joshua David Sparks, who makes many of the tracks on Standards sound like musical conversations instead of a guy rambling to himself in a woodshed. That’s especially true on “No EQ” and “Adult Contempt”, where the percussion races at an engine-combusting speed, urging Weiss to vocally explore his feelings of bitterness. His guitar lines follow suit, breaking free of their lullaby trappings to become something more anthemic. They’re the only songs in recent memory where the hooks lie in the drumming.
But the emotional evocations of Standards don’t rely solely on speed, as proven by the symbiotic relationship between dual album centerpieces “Your Lasting Image” and “Old Lace and Ivory”. Despite leaning towards balladry in their pacing, the back-to-back songs build upon each other with shifting dynamics, the first driven by a pedal effect that sounds like a tracking device tagged to a deep-sea creature. This heralds the arrival of the latter tune, which, after a seamless transition, melts into straightforward plucking and nautical imagery to symbolize the many stages of a relationship. Over eight-and-a-half minutes, we’re brought from the ocean floor to the wreckage of a ship and back to dry land.
Keep in mind that much of this description is interpretive. Maritime terminology aside, Weiss stays purposely cryptic throughout much of Standards, laying down metaphors and hundred-dollar words about early-30s reflection and ennui, then widening their meaning with the instrumentation (other than Sparks’ drums, he plays everything on the album). “Closing Argument”, for instance, describes little more than him going back and forth between being speechless and feeling comfortable enough to speak in public. Maybe he’s talking about a long-distance relationship. Or maybe it’s a friendship. Or perhaps it’s addressed to his bandmates or his fans.
The concrete definition (if there is one) doesn’t matter, because once Weiss warps his guitar tone until it resembles an electric piano and Sparks’ drums crash-land to Earth, chances are you’ll make up an answer for yourself. That applies doubly to “Anesthetic”. Even though Weiss’ lyrics about multiplying reflections describe something specific only to him, the incongruous bursts of strings and xylophone — kept steady by three monolithic bass notes — will likely transport the listener to a distinct locale in their own mind. And with a record this warm, full, and expansive, it probably won’t be a cabin in the woods.
Essential Tracks: “Closing Argument”, “Adult Contempt”, and “Anesthetic”