Release Date: February 24, 2017
Label: yk Records
For those of you who are unfamiliar, Fort Collins is a mid-sized college town about an hour north of the Denver/Boulder nexus. Growing up here, the music scene was dominated by bluegrass and jam bands. That’s not to say there weren’t pockets of other music, just that it always seemed like the shows I wanted to see were an hour’s drive away. But all things change and our local venues are now showing signs of life on the indie rock booking front. In the past year alone, I’ve had (or will have) the chance to see Erika Wennerstrom, the Mountain Goats, Blitzen Trapper, Kevin Morby, Spoon, and Langhorne Slim all in the comfort of my own hometown.
The Langhorne Slim show was one I was particularly excited about. A Langhorne concert at the Hi-Dive in Denver was the first show my wife and I attended together, so there was some nostalgia contributing to my anticipation. Langhorne and his band did not disappoint and played a rousing set to the mild-mannered, mostly seated Fort Collins audience. This was not surprising. As a nascent scene, the shows I’ve been to in Fort Collins have always been the height of respectful–as if we are all afraid of scaring the bands away, and in awe that they are finally choosing to come play for us. What was unexpected was the opening act: Skyway Man.
James Wallace (the Skyway Man himself) shuffled out nondescriptly enough and took his seat at a keyboard while balancing a guitar in his lap. Before him were an array of microphones, even some embedded in an old telephone receiver. Or maybe it was an undoctored telephone receiver? In any event, he proceeded to launch into his set, doing his best to approximate the sounds of a full band. He even did his own call-and-response vocals. Wallace also had a borderline-uncomfortable penchant for sustained eye contact during his set.
It was all a bit disorienting. But the good kind of disorienting. My wife and I looked at one another, nervously chuckling and asking, “Is this supposed to be funny?” To be sure, Wallace’s disarming, unpretentious solo performance (he assured us that when he has a backing band, the music was “pretty tight”) coupled with his far-out lyrical content could cause confusion. Some people singing about the apocalypse take themselves very seriously. It wasn’t until Wallace broke into a cover of Dory Previn’s “Mythical Kinds & Iguanas” and explained that it was a weird tune that we were convinced it was okay to laugh along with some of the lyrics–Skyway Man was in on the joke.
And so after that long preamble, we come to the album itself. You know what–Wallace was right, the full band treatment is pretty tight indeed. On Seen Comin’ From a Mighty Eye, the backing musicians are rounded-out with session players from the Spacebomb Records house band. The record label founded by Matthew E. White has a history of producing smooth, soulful sounds, and when fused with Skyway Man’s psychedelic lyrics and Americana song-structures, the arrangements enhance the sense that these are just 1970s AM radio hits from an alternate dimension. One song, “Wires (Donny Angel and the Opening Wide),” even references the idea directly:”Way up north in some white cave all that nothing turned itself into a spark, sounded just like a radio wave. I was listening to the A.M. live riding to the county fair.” Far out.
Seen Comin’ From a Mighty Eye is said to draw inspiration for its songs from a number of sources: a vision Wallace had of future humans living in cities under the sea, letters written by a ufologist that describe a 4th dimensional New Jerusalem, and who knows what else. He’s worked with parallel lyrical themes on previous records as James Wallace and the Naked Light, but as Skyway Man, it all coheres like it has been refracted through a futuristic space station relay. As you might guess, given these themes, the mood is slightly supernatural–like there is some hidden reality beyond the one we perceive. But not in a menacing way of those Time Life Mysteries of the Unknown book sets advertised on TV during the 80s, or any of the crop of current programming on the history channel.
Here are some examples of Skyway Man’s more forgiving take on the unknown:
“I might’ve told about the coming end times, all that darkness, and how the light brotherhood might save us.” from “The Seer”
“Long ago they burned our last power store. We took shelter on the ocean floor, lived for centuries on thermal power.” from “Terre, 9999”
“Somehow I knew before the faultline swallowed Oakland, a light flashed through all the little homes so none left broken. I called the light the carnival light, saw it comin’ from a mighty eye. I’d seen it once in the freezer door and it kept me awake at night.” from “Mighty Eye”
Lyrics like these illustrate a more a buoyant, absurdist kind of supernatural. That’s what you get when you meld boogie-woogie with time machines and inquiries into the disjunctures that arise in self-perception. The stability of the self is certainly a theme throughout the album. Part of this involves questioning the nature of sanity:
“I said ‘lay me down’ and don’t go too far. Just kill the visions.” from “Opportunity/Visions Pt. 2”
“(Little girl), you don’t understand (what it’s like) to have your shadow wandering ‘round like a man.” from “The Shadow Knows”
But Wallace also interrogates the nature of the creative process and its root in surreal experiences. There have been studies that show creativity is linked to mental illness after all. So, when the final line of the album loops back to one of its first, to repeat that “they come from somewhere,” it sounds like a commentary on all of the ideas he’s laid-out in the just-finished album. Where do all of these fantastical ideas come from? Where does human creativity find its inspiration? It comes from somewhere. Somewhere just beyond our comprehension. And that’s a sentiment I can get behind. I like there to be a little mystery in life.
Like the serendipity of how Skyway Man’s music arrived in my ears. I probably would never have discovered it if he hadn’t come to my town. Maybe that’s a sign that our local music-booking scene has finally come into its own. Golly, I hope so, because that means even more great new music will be coming my way.