There’s absolutely nothing expected about Hidden Harbor by local multi-instrumentalist Miles Cramer. To start, Cramer is probably best known for playing drums with avant-rock outfit Asian Teacher Factory. Or for brewing a fine cup of tea at Dobra. On his five-song EP, released at the beginning of this year, he also sings and plays guitar and keys.
But there are hints of both alt-rock and the transformative properties of tea. From the acoustic-psychedelic explorations of lead track “Love in the Neon Light,” Cramer reveals his vocal range (from a dusky baritone to an aerial tenor). He uses his voice expressively, unconcerned with technical correctness, sliding up and down scales and in and out of harmonies while the melodies swirl dreamily over a heavily syncopated beat. “I’m digging a hole / in the Blue Ridge Mountains / I wish you all happiness and harmony,” he sings at the song’s conclusion.
“Aquarium,” luminous and haunted, echoes with reverb and atmospherics. It’s part Gregorian chant, part Space Odyssey, part Bedouin camel train. The song is a spiritual rite stitched at odd angles to a Carnival fun house. It works because it’s more than a song, it’s a piece of performance art. (IN the album notes, Cramer describes the EP as “a humble attempt to bring to sound a battle of desire and inner peace through the muck of heavy emotions and a world of many fruits.”)
“Cul-De-Sac” is built on Eastern rhythms and sweeping, swooning lyrics. Mystic and dense, the song morphs in rhythm and intent, taking the listener on a guided visualization that requires a certain level of suspended belief. The trust fall is worth the momentary jitter of uncertainty. Cramer’s methods as a composer are unorthodox, for sure, but the resulting sonic tapestry is akin to a magic carpet. The addition of a soaring vocal by Sage Sansone certainly enhances the journey.
With its hushed beginning, “The Shadow People” brings the energy back down. Momentarily. Even here, on an initially quiet track, the album is far from spare or minimalist. A resonant French horn, played by Zach Cramer, provides balance to shimmery percussion and mounting vocal and instrumental drama. Plenty of other star players guest on Hidden Harbor: Matt Williams on violin and electric guitar, Amy Lovinger on violin, Franklin Keel on cello and Noah Wilson on sitar, just to name a few.
The EP closes with “Dark Blue Light,” an almost-folky almost-lullaby. The nocturne is brief by charming — a duet over strummed guitar and shooting star effects. Breathlessly romantic, yet ambling cooly through melody and atmospherics, the song perfectly sums up the album’s wonderful weirdness.