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Chasing iconoclasts

Matthew Fountain and the Whereabouts make lushly dramatic chamber folk

Matthew Fountain cites legends as influences, and actually follows through on that promise. Photo credit: matthewfountain.com

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There is a hallowed hall in the hearts of sensitive, self-consciously intellectual music lovers that is dedicated to singer-songwriters who managed to craft their art in equal deference to the heart and mind. Pop music history is littered with people that wrote songs like novels, that wrote songs like slyly smart dirty jokes, that wrote songs like confessions they'd never dream of revealing if they weren't accompanied by the freeing presence of music, that composed songs like genres didn't exist. These are people like Leonard Cohen, Harry Nilsson, Jarvis Cocker, Bjork, David Byrne, Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and Nick Cave.

Whenever I see bands that cite these artists as influences, it normally indicates to me that this is a band that will almost certainly miss everything that made these craftsmen and craftswomen such indelible creators -- that all the bands will borrow is an oppressive somberness and self-importance. Because, honestly, it's not hard to be inspired by iconic artists, and less easy to transform that inspiration into anything remotely comparable in terms of heft and impact. Matthew Fountain and the Whereabouts is a Portland-based outfit that comes closer than most, as evidenced on their recent release, Born on the Hook.

The first, and possibly most important, trait that one picks up when listening to Fountain's songs, is his apparent patience; Fountain seems more than willing to let these songs breathe, to stretch out and create their own little worlds. "This Is Kneeling" -- the second single released ahead of the album, though, crucially, the second-to-last track on the album itself -- is all about delayed satisfaction, starting with just Fountain and a deliberately-paced guitar, repeating the title of the song in different ways, all in the lead-up to a massive swell of orchestration, before fading away like a dream. This seems to be Fountain's M.O., providing no easy answers over the course of his song's complex, winding roads.

Indeed, Cohen, Nilsson, Bjork, and Byrne are all artists name-checked by Fountain as influences, along with other giants like Portishead, Elliott Smith, and Jeff Buckley, and if those don't necessarily seem like compatible resources to draw from, it somehow works like a charm on Born on the Hook. With a style rooted in chamber folk allowing for maximum grandiosity, Fountain frees himself to follow every stylistic whim that occurs to him. Sometimes, as on the Dirty Projectors-esque "Bookkeeping for the World War," this results in a kitchen sink quality that makes the song even more magnetic in its tangled web of ambition - built on the foundation of a manic, elastic guitar line, the song is almost hilariously dramatic, full of stop-start dynamics and wild diversions.

As a frontman, Fountain's voice is a straightforward, unadorned baritone, the opposite of flashy. Because of this, he takes on Leonard Cohen's vibe of the everyman poet, lending credibility to his role of narrator and bandleader. The frequently stately tunes provided by the Whereabouts fit so neatly with Fountain's downtrodden-yet-confident energy that it's hard to imagine anyone else singing these songs. Perhaps it's that quality that most closely aligns him with the aforementioned legends: the idea of the singer-songwriter as iconoclast, an irreplaceable presence the looms even larger with the benefit of distance.

Above all else, Born on the Hook is an invigoratingly lush album, utilizing a murderer's row of outstanding musicians and singers to create a sonically vibrant sound that synthesizes all of Fountain's peccadilloes into one cohesive vision. While the messages in the songs may tend toward the world-weary, I find myself energized when I come across music so fully realized and comfortable in its own skin.

Matthew Fountain and the Whereabouts, w/ more TBA, 9 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 7, cover TBA, Le Voyeur, 404 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.943.5710, voyeurolympia.com 

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