Quiet Endings | Music | Weekly style
There is one thing missing from the next album by Richmond-based indie folk duo Lean Year: You.
Inside the spacious arrangements and majestic beat of “Sides,” due out on the Western Vinyl label on September 2, there’s a place for every listener.
“It’s really good if the audience feels like something is missing,” says Rick Alverson, who provides backing vocals and various instruments. “They fill that space with their anticipation and their frustration, or their patience. There is a place for them in the song. I’m determined to this shit.
When Lean Year was doing “Sides”, absence was all around them.
Alverson lost both parents within a year; first her father, in April 2020, then her mother, who is pictured on the cover of “Sides”, the following February. Both battled dementia before their deaths. The singer’s mother Emilie Rex battled cancer in full remission around this time, but just three days before Alverson’s mother died, the couple were forced to put down their family dog, Orca.
Amid this cascade of loss came music whose rarity is anything but lonely – nine songs that show how art can be one side of a two-way conversation.
The key to this chemistry is the stylistic conversation within the group. Rex and Alverson met in 2010, and the first song they wrote together, “Bad Woman,” was in May of that year. Rex eventually moved from Bloomington, Indiana, where she attended graduate school and worked in the office of sustainability at Indiana University, Richmond, joining Alverson who has lived here since 1994.
While Rex has since transitioned to consulting, Alverson spent the decade between his previous band’s last release, Spokane, and Lean Year’s 2017 self-titled debut album writing and directing feature films, including a 2015 breakthrough with “Entertainment”. You’d be hard-pressed to find a movie that unfolds with more exquisite deliberation and ambiguity.
Alverson says he’s always skipped over the slower songs on the albums he loves — a trait that provides a counterbalance in the lean year.
“There’s friction between us about instincts,” Alverson says. “It pulls in different directions and creates a kind of dramatic conflict in the thing itself. But I’m predisposed to slow everything down to the quarter. I can go on like this. Seems logical to me.”
The setting in which “Sides” was recorded lent itself to this approach. The duo traveled to the Galen, Michigan home studio of Erik Hall, which is listed alongside Alverson as a co-producer on “Sides,” just as he was on Lean Year’s feature debut. “It’s a literal one-horse town,” Rex notes. The process of refining the arrangements was pleasantly unhurried, reflecting the close collaboration between Alverson and Hall, who makes his own music as In Tall Buildings.
“There was a lot of assembling and disassembling of the instrumental parts,” Rex recalls. Accompaniment ranges from saxophone and clarinet to Wurlitzer and Mellotron, though the mix is far from crowded. “Rick and Erik worked really well together building things and then being able to take things apart again in a way that kept coming back to the same balance around ‘Is there enough space for people to move around and sit the songs in a different way? »
Rex and Hall met when they were undergrads at the University of Michigan, and having the opportunity to catch up was half the motivation to get to Galen. “It’s a beautiful home he’s set up with his wife, Abra Berens, who is a very accomplished chef, food sovereignty campaigner and food writer,” says Rex. “She will come home very often and somehow at the end of the day cook us an amazing meal… They are some of our very close friends so we always have the feel like we’re making a record as an excuse to get out.”
As closely tied as the duo were to Hall and his home studio, that connection runs even deeper now. Alverson wrote “Legs”, the opening track to “Sides”, on the day Orca died. Within 12 hours of this loss, he discovered his mother’s life was coming to an end.
“It’s very visual in our minds,” Rex says, “because we have the physical memory of him writing it and being in the basement of Erik’s house… We have slept at Erik’s house that night because we had heard that Rick’s mother was potentially unwell and thought we had to leave very early in the morning.
“Legs” is the most lyrically direct song on “Sides”, reacting to Orca’s difficulty standing, a symptom that Alverson’s mother also exhibited. “Can you lift me?” Rex calls for heavy and minor kalimba and piano hits. The question resonates both literally and figuratively, and as the song progresses the distance between these meanings becomes vast, laying bare the inscrutable singularity of death.
“People die alone in the most direct sense,” Rex says, “but I think there are certain things about the people around them that are trying to figure out how they can interact with that experience and accept its limitations.”
“Ultimately, you can’t interact with it,” adds Alverson. “It’s the antithesis of the interactive experience, because it’s letting go.”
As anyone who has lost a parent knows, the process of letting go doesn’t end there. Unfortunately, the pandemic delayed Alverson’s parents’ memorial service until last summer. But as the extended family gathered in Spokane, Washington, where Alverson was born, there was an opportunity to reflect and sort through old photos. The one on the cover of “Sides” was taken in 1955, and while others were considered for this location – a photo from his parents’ wedding day appears in the inside layout – the cover photo manages to render tribute while nodding to the period in which the album was made
“Because of both the stress and the unreality of her psychic experience, it shattered everything,” says Alverson, “both in beautiful and horrific ways, for our whole family. She was like the patron saint and the annoying little devil of the whole pandemic for us.”
“A lot of that is captured in that smile,” adds Rex. “There’s something amazing about her smile and her look. There’s so much she knows that we don’t know that’s captured in her expression.
The album’s sixth song, “Bend,” shares one of the hallucinations Alverson’s mother experienced: chrysanthemums on a hospital floor. A few tracks earlier, “End” conveys its own sense of disorientation. Rex’s voice rises upward to intone, “I don’t know where I am / I don’t know where I’ve been,” each word dissipating like steam. It’s one of many places – the chorus of “Nitetime” is another – where the lyrics land indelibly while still sounding transient, like a memory you have yet to rebuild. This suits a band that wants listeners to really engage.
“There’s so much content that’s so comprehensive and compact and digestible and it’s not messy,” says Alverson. “There is a trend towards this clarity. Everything is ‘What’s the story? What is the story? It has to be able to be bought and sold, compacted and moved, and it’s really different to live. It’s a shame.”
“We’re both atheists,” Rex says, “and we talk a lot about the power of music that connects that space between body and mind, and gets you out of your head, and taps into that very secular spiritual space. I feel like that’s the perfect state to process those liminal emotions, where you see someone make that transition from living in the world that we live in, to not knowing, and not knowing where he will.
Lean Year’s “Sides” will be released September 2 on Western Vinyl. To pre-order the album, go to leanyear.bandcamp.com. The band is touring in November and you can check the dates here.