Jeff Markham is kind of the 2013 guy version of Hope Sandoval, writing those dusky, delicate rockers. Songs in soft focus and close to the mic, with hints of rock grit and country jangle. So comfortably broken, so beautifully wounded. And then he disappears and takes his bittersweet catalog with him.
The good news is that Markham is back now, with new project Even the Animals, and a stunningly pretty EP by way of introductions. The band is Markham on guitar and vocal, Peter Van Rijssen on bass and vocals, Will Hogancamp on guitar and Kent Spillmann on drums. The band’s name comes from a lyric in its song, “Love and loss”: “Well, you loved me cause I was no good, you loved me because I was a faker. When you came home even the animals knew what they were in for.”
The album has a light touch — it’s gentler, more twilit and wistful than Markham’s past projects. Which is a good thing. Even the Animals shows the songwriter’s evolution; the music is well-matched to his hazy tenor. Spillmann’s drumming, often with brushes, at turns echoey and jazzy, sets the perfect pace from lead track “Heaven forbid.” (This song recalls the spooky angst of “Terrible Distraction” from previous Markham endeavor AutoWolfe — well worth a listen if you can track it down.)
But not every song is a study in slowcore. “Fire to metal” thumps and snaps; a tambourine pairs with kick drum and hand claps. The lyrics trip and spit; the whole track is a bonfire popping and crackling, bright-charged and leaping against a black sky.
“Better than you think” is deceptively simple. Its gentle rhythm comes from strummed guitar matched with piano here, a second guitar there. It’s a moodily captured moment — as much about love and loss as the rest of the album (“Well, I know you better than you think. You are always lost at sea, running from something that you have left behind. All this time, all alone and still you don’t know why”), but here the emotion is distilled, the few words encapsulating a feeling both vivid and fleeting.
In fact, the self-titled EP is a sea change album even though the listener is coming to this song cycle without knowing when preceded it. It’s good enough to transmute its own unspoken past into these eight tracks that resonate like poetry (only not so precious). And, in a way, to write what might otherwise be a breakup album out of thin air leaves the impression of brokenness as some sort of foundation. The break is not the catalyst, but the norm. And there’s something beautifully human about that — about living with a certain low-level sadness that doesn’t color a day as much as reverberate within it.
“I am yours but I am lost,” Markham sings on “Hand me down heart.” It’s a lyric Hope Sandoval (wherever she is these days, whomever she’s faded into) would appreciate. And one that future fans of Even the Animals are likely to sing along with, the way we all do with those lines that seem most like ours.