In the mid-1990s, a Houston DJ named DJ Screw gained widespread attention for pioneering a unique style of remixing known as “Chopped and Screwed,” in which he would use a turntable to shift an existing rap or R&B song’s pitch significantly downward and drastically slow its tempo. While the pitch adjustment added an unsettling and occasionally menacing effect, the slowed tempos provided an exaggerated abundance of room for the songs to breathe, and sounds or lyrics previously obscured in the mix were unveiled to listeners under the screwed-up microscope. When it worked, it could be moving or downright revelatory.
Young Family Song isn’t a rap album, and it certainly hasn’t been Chopped and Screwed, but San Francisco’s Last of the Blacksmiths filter their folk-rock through a slowed-down approach that similarly maximizes the impact of every detail. The album is the group’s second, following a 2005 self-titled debut which drew numerous favorable reviews comparing them to artists like Son Volt and The Band, from whose Cahoots album the Blacksmiths draw their name. Beyond the nominal connection, LotB share their predecessors’ love for warm multi-part harmonies and an inclination toward genre-melding jams that incorporate elements of Americana, country, blues and R&B for a sound that feels equally recognizable and unique.
Utilizing a diverse arsenal of styles and sounds, the Blacksmiths build and deconstruct some seriously hypnotic grooves. The first song, “Autumn Vacation,” alone has three distinct movements: a lonely piano-backed introduction, which morphs into a slowcore-touched rock ballad, and then into a horn-punctuated swell. Others aren’t quite as structurally ambitious, but their moments work just as well, like the beautiful guitar solo that closes “The Records,” or the evolving interplay between guitar and organ throughout “Beard Tongues.” Things remain pretty stripped-down throughout, but the Blacksmiths have the skill to make each subtle shift matter.
While the music is moody, the alternating feelings of mournful and wistful reflection that pervade are driven by the lyrics, through which the band looks back on once-loved records and once-loved lovers with an eye for fragmentary moments and details. The vocals weave in and out of the music, sometimes lost in the sound, or soaring through some beautiful, fragile harmonies. On “Giving Up,” perhaps the album’s most fully realized distillation of R&B mixed with droning rock, the singer’s caution that he’s not giving up on his lost love floats vulnerably above the thick bass and organ tones that cement the mood.
There are a number of hummable and more immediately accessible moments on this album too, but I think it’s best to give Young Family Song a close listen and just get lost in it, as every spin seems to reveal new details to enjoy. That might be too heavy a burden if you’re just looking for some background music, but there’s a real joy to continuing to unfold new layers from this album, and I don’t expect to have it fully figured out any time soon.
This post was originally written for and republished from KQED Interactive.