If the name Sam Skinner seems familiar, he’s probably best known as a member of Pinegrove, but has also performed with Tawny Peaks, as well as recording one of our favourite new bands, Forth Wanderers. He’s now gone solo, although his debut EP features contributions from the likes of Evan Stephens Hall from Pinegrove, Baldrick from Crying and 100%, and Natasha Jacobs from Thelma.
Sam’s sound is somewhat difficult to pigeon-hole or pin down; whilst the influence of alt-folkies, and in particular Sufjan Stevens, is paramount, there are also nods in the direction of jazz in some of his complex musical phrasings, which are slightly at odds to the noisier, more traditionally DIY offerings elsewhere. His choice of instrumentation is equally eclectic, from the piano led opening number Learn, through to the electric-guitar instrumental, Daniel and the banjo-led closing track, Stout – almost always joined by some sublime percussion, which arguably steals the show.
Sam’s from the New Jersey township of Montclair, which is in the county of Essex, but not the one you might know from ITV’s hit, “scripted reality” series. With a population of just under 38,000, Montclair is the 60th largest municipality in New Jersey. Despite it’s relatively small size, Montclair has some impressively famous residents, not least second man on the moon Buzz Aldrin and baseball legend, and cartoon name provider, Yogi Berra. Montclair has also produced some impressive musicians, from jazz-drummer Billy Hart, who played with the likes of Otis Redding and Stan Getz, through to members of The Four Seasons, although not Frankie Valli, as well as sometime Eagles guitarist, Joe Walsh.
While Sam’s been putting music out since the first Tawny Peaks release back in 2012. As a solo artist he’s only just starting, with his debut EP, Danny Through Junior, coming out this week on Soft Speaks Records.
The EP is a format that’s often used for experimentation, and as such can be somewhat incoherent in comparison to the more thematic led LP, but on Danny Through Junior, despite taking in a variety of ideas, Sam Skinner’s songwriting seems remarkably coherent. Whether at the piano or guitar, he is a master of unusual melodies, gentle experimentations and playing with what his listener might expect from him. Discussing the songwriting Sam himself admits these songs are, “the result of myself exploring the world of songwriting in a more experimental way”. This is not however a record that’s deliberately odd, or even that strange at all, it’s just not a record that goes for the obvious, and as such it remains fascinating even on numerous listens.
Opening track Learn builds around jerky, ticking rhythms, and rich, echoing, and charmingly heavy-handed piano playing. This gives it a wonderfully organic feel, the notes seeming to exist deliberately ever so slightly out of time to where you expect them to appear. Sam’s voice, not really a feature of Pinegrove’s output, is thankfully excellent; somewhere between the brittle, emotion of Ellis Jones of Trust Fund and the booming, warmth of Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner.
Elsewhere, the instrumental Daniel is deliciously frost-bitten; a beautiful jazzy, instrumental, reminiscent of Margaret Glaspy’s playing, and particularly beautiful for the presence of the warm crackle of the amplifier, and the way you can feel every buzz from the fret board. Recent single Chestnuts, has the same lurching quality as Learn, only with guitar and banjo taking the place of the woozy piano and some backing vocals that suggest this solo album is anything but lonely. Joel is perhaps the most straight forward number, driving and downbeat, with a splendid fuzzy breakdown.
Best of all is the closing track, Stout, wonderfully crackly, it has a similarly acoustic charm to those early blues recordings. Laced with trilling banjos and beautiful bassy swells, it’s delightful, even if it does sound almost exactly like Sufjan Stevens. Lyrically, it seems to deal with his own songwriting, and the self-doubts that come with it, as he sings, “I can’t explain all the things that I chose to record”; don’t worry Sam, there’s no explanation necessary if it’s as good as this!
Wintry, low-key and understated, plus coming out at the same time as a new Pinegrove album – you could easily see this record slipping almost entirely under the radar. It would be a great shame though, because Sam’s confident and compelling debut suggests his solo venture is an idea well worth pursuing further.
Danny Through Junior is out January 27th via Soft Speak Records.