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The Haul: Gordon Withers' Gordon Withers

Shortly after my previous post about Gordon Withers’ funding drive for the mastering and pressing of this album, Withers thankfully reached his goal, which resulted in the MP3s being delivered to my inbox a few months ago and the LP being delivered to my house earlier this week. It’s nice to see my name on the back of a vinyl sleeve, especially when it’s accompanied by such great music.

121. Gordon Withers – Gordon Withers LP/MP3 – Self-released, 2009 – $10

Gordon Withers' self-titled LP

Most of the discussion of Gordon Withers’ music has been focused on the circumstances surrounding its release, whether it’s the Callum Robbins benefit album of Jawbox covers or the Kickstarter funding drive for this release, that the actual music might have been overlooked. While I’d be amiss to ignore the fact that such a blindspot might have happened anyway—after all, it’s instrumental solo cello that we’re talking about—Withers’ combination of covers and originals deserves more than a passing spin.

I’ll tackle the five covers first. I was familiar with four of the five songs—the Notwist’s “One with the Freaks” being the lone exception—and if step one for a successful covers record is having inspired material, Withers nailed it. The Notwist cover reminds me that I slept on Neon Golden for too long, but a viewing of the “One for the Freaks” video establishes two things: first, they’re far more rock and less electronic than I remembered, second, Withers does an excellent job cello-izing the song’s vocal melody. Chavez’s “Unreal Is Here” always struck me as overwhelmingly melodic and surprisingly mellow for such an angular indie rock group, a statement that, “Yes, we can also do this style of music better than you’d ever imagine.” Because of this emphasis on melody and mood, it’s an easy, yet rewarding translation. (Note: “Tight Around the Jaws” would make for a real badass cover, as well. And don’t get me started on “Wakeman’s Air.”) Don Caballero’s “For Respect” benefits from the absence of drums, since there’s more than enough to replicate from the guitars and bass. (Plus, forcing his brother Stephen to step into Damon Che’s shoes seems like cruel and unusual punishment.) It’s the most technically impressive cover here, handling both the rigid riffs of the opening and the strafing runs of its close with equal aplomb. Burning Airlines’ “Flood of Foreign Capital” features J. Robbins on glockenspiel (he produced the album and appears throughout, but helping cover his own song is a nice touch), but Stephen Withers’ layers of percussion steal the show. Finally, “Forget” isn’t the first Mission of Burma song I’d suspect to be covered, but it closes the album with involving interplay between Withers’ multitracked cello and Robbins’ piano. It also reminds me that I need to listen to more of those then-posthumous MOB compilations.

I’m interested to see how many people took Withers up on the “Pick a song for me to cover” option, since those songs could easily comprise a nice mini-album. I know Jon Mount tasked Withers with Juno’s “The Young Influentials,” which should be wonderful, and someone else signed him up for a Jets to Brazil cover, but if I can accurately extrapolate his taste in music to his audience’s, I bet there are some other excellent songs in the queue.

There’s a necessary give and take between the covers and the originals, since it’s hard not to get excited about hearing a new version of “Unreal Is Here” or “For Respect” and that’s likely what draws listeners like myself to Withers in the first place, but what impressed me the most about Gordon Withers was the strength of the original songs. These songs combine classical approaches and indie rock structures. “Cast into the Sky” builds into a cacophonous peak before distilling this dissonant streak into a somber ending. The first half of “Revolving Doors” could easily be a cover of a long-lost uptempo indie rock song, but it’s the mid-song course correction into flowing melodies and slower tempos that sets the song apart. “Memories of the Future” is the closest the LP comes to chamber music, turning its foreboding deep line into a swirling undertow before letting it drift off into regret. “Defenestrations of Prague” is the clear highlight of the LP, a six-minute-long track loaded with starts and stops, sawing countermelodies, and energetic crescendos. “Defenestrations” proves that Withers has absorbed compositional tricks from the artists he covers and determined their best usage for cello.

Returning to the surface view of this album, Withers has done a remarkable job of getting people interested in his music, which I can’t imagine is an easy task for a solo cellist. The Jawbox covers album was an excellent introduction to his performances, as well as being a benefit for Callum Robbins, and Gordon Withers is a perfect next step, balancing covers and originals with equal weight. It’ll be interesting to see how his own work progresses as he spends more time as a member of J Robbins’ new band, Office of Future Plans, helming Quadruplestop, his four-person cello group, and contributing to We All Inherit the Moon, an ambient/post-rock group from various parts of the country, but if Gordon Withers is any indication, overlooking his own releases would be a huge mistake.

Pre-order the new Gordon Withers album

Copyright Cathy Seeley

Back in 2007, cellist Gordon Withers recorded an album of Jawbox covers, showcasing the compositional strength of the group’s literate D.C. post-punk/hardcore. As someone who played the cello growing up (and occasionally since then), Withers’ talent and ingenuity made me green with envy. He captured their melodic grace, their stabs of dissonance, and their emotional core, taking interesting and unexpected approaches to translating J Robbins’ vocals, Robbins and Bill Barbot’s parrying guitars, and Kim Coletta’s rolling bass lines. It’s the sort of project that usually sounds more interesting on paper than in actuality, but Withers managed to make it compelling.

If the achievement alone wasn’t enough, all proceeds from Jawbox on Cello: A Benefit for Cal Robbins went to J’s son, Callum Robbins, who suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Withers wasn’t alone in his charity—there was a great 2CD compilation, bands like the Dismemberment Plan, Snapcase, and Arcwelder reunited for shows, and hey, you can donate directly as well—but his album was such a unique, personal tribute.

All of this lead-in brings me to his new album, which is now available for pre-order. But it’s no normal pre-order. The album has been recorded—by J. Robbins, of course—but the mastering and physical pressings still await funding. This is where you come in. If Withers gets $2,500 by October 14th, the album will happen. The range of donations is tantalizing— for starters, a buck gets your name’s in the liner notes, a fiver gets you the mp3s, eight bucks gets you the CD, ten gets you the vinyl and two bonus tracks. Past that, things get progressively more interesting. For $50 you can get the vinyl and either a custom piece of artwork from Dave Gonzalez or a cello-ized song of your choice. (Rodan’s “Darjeeling” is awfully tempting.) $100 gets you both. For $500, you get everything plus a solo performance from Withers in your house for you and your friends and even a cello lesson if you want. It’s an impressive array of options.

Withers is currently halfway there, leaving over $1200 to go. Not to sound like a broken record about supporting music, but this pre-order is a perfect opportunity to put your money where your mouth is. I’d love this sort of funding to become commonplace, so help Withers set a great, encouraging example.