Papercuts - Life Among the Savages

A winning mix of lush piano-driven dream pop with some darker undertones.

Additional Info

8.2

ALBUM: Life Among the Savages

ARTIST: Papercuts

2014

Alternative

With an ever-revolving cast of characters and string of labels, Papercuts remains the musical vehicle of Jason Quever, the only permanent member of the band. Now on his sixth record, he’s quietly built up a slow and steady following for the past fourteen years, when he released his first album. Being at the center of his project gives him a lot of control over his music, and he uses it to his advantage. Not a single album has ever been released on the same label, even Sub Pop, and he frequently collaborates with other like-minded musicians like Alex Scally of Beach House (on 2009’s You Can Have What You Want) and more recently Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500 on Wareham’s recent album Emancipated Hearts. The fact that he often records in his home studio gives his process a certain intimate charm that really reflects on the music he creates. On Life Among the Savages, released on a brand new Los Angeles-based label Easy Sounds (which couldn’t be a more perfect title), Quever crafts sleepy dream pop (sleepy in a good way) that shoots for the clouds but stays grounded with a strong piano backbone. This batch of songs shows his modest knack for creating woozy compositions using basic instruments like piano, acoustic guitar, and organ and transforming them into a limitless sprawl of sound that hits a deep emotional vein.

The thing about Quever’s arrangements is that they seem like they shouldn’t work, yet they magically do. The instrumentations, especially in “Still Knocking At the Door,” “Life Among the Savages,” and “Tourist,” seem slovenly played and effortlessly slapped together, but mesh together in a way that makes us wonder how he made them sound perfectly breezy. It’s uncanny. Perhaps the secret is the reverb and other lo-fi production he uses as his glue. While they contribute to the dark and murky vibes that the record is bathed in, they also create an undeniable warmth that radiates through his songs. Methodical yet spontaneous, acoustic guitar strums, hard-hitting piano chords, and buzzing organs are encapsulated in this fuzzy sheen of production and play off each other in an almost whimsical way. And the percussion is anything but standard. Interestingly enough, behind his piano touches, the drums are one of the most fascinating things on the album. At times, they sound like an echo chamber to the max, like in “New Body.” Sometimes they’re super tight and focused like in “Staring At the Bright Lights.” And it almost sounds like a cymbal in reverse makes multiple appearances in “Easter Morning.” Their product is a testament to the wonderful things reverb-laced production can do to sound. It’s an endless and expansive sonic universe that envelops the listener in a fuzzy hug, one that they probably would want to hug back. This approach calls to mind Grizzly Bear’s echoey masterpieces that leave listeners entranced and captivated with every note and sound. This record sounds like an intimate live session in a basement somewhere. The quality of the instruments and how they come together is so organic; it’s like you’re right there.

Quever’s lyrics are earnest and heartfelt, but the only downside is that they’re very hard to understand because of the reverb also used to make them sound so great. It’s a sad Catch-22. His voice is smooth and often frail-bodied, but he holds his own well in the arena of his compositions. His whispers and half croons, from what would be understood, capture little vignettes of his life, his dreams and fears, rather than a complete story with strong narrative ties. And these little stories are often depressing or dark, enumerating his fears of being alone in his head with his demons, wanting to escape. Though some serious concentration is required to really parse out the individual lyrics, the way he sings them tell the stories of his emotions just as well. At a recent hometown show, he remarked that he was going to “play a happy song now” in light of the string of darker songs he just played. This self-aware attitude really brings him down to earth, in the best way. He knows the emotions that he’s bringing to people all too well, and that’s a sign of a great artist.

“It’s simple, simple/staring into the bright lights”

1. Still Knocking At the Door
From the start, Quever shows his knack for making the simple seem intricately complex. Two piano chords, played heavy handedly, oscillate for a short while before his breathy vocals come in to lighten the atmosphere. But while his voice sounds breezy, it seems to convey some sort of heartbreak, one of unrequited love or even one having to do with his own hopes or dreams. No matter the subject, the emotion he conveys is sincere and relatable, and the diminished piano chords and violin accents in the chorus add to that mood. The production on his vocals goes in the red with reverb at times, but it’s endearing enough to embrace.8.7
2. New Body
Coming off of the last song, this one feels a bit too one-note at the start. There’s pretty much one chord on the piano and one note in the melody line. But Quever’s way too smart to leave a song at that. The rest of the song immediately picks up the lull, with a chorus that’s anthemic but low-key, a verse that’s laden with organ accents, and a second chorus with a new layer of horn. It’s a beautiful build that’s completely worth the wait. Like before, the subject matter is dark, but somewhat hopeful. “New bodies for the old guard,” he intones during the chorus like he’s looking for an escape from his life. Hopefully he’s finding it in the music.8.0
3. Life Among the Savages
As well as being a great songwriter, Quever is also a very talented arranger. This track has a very orchestral vibe that feels out of place at first, but quickly falls in line with his musical style. The chorus of violins at the very start feels like it would be more at home in a Beatles song. It’s just oddly bombastic compared to his lush vocals. But as it goes on, it starts to fall into a minor key, with a haunting violin line standing out from the guitar strums. His version of an upbeat song is nothing short of a hauntingly beautiful composition with some darker themes. In the end of his contemplations with his demons, he “chooses war.”8.2
4. Staring At the Bright Lights
As the midpoint of the record, this track effectively grounds the previous dreaminess so it doesn’t fly too high. This is the first time some really tight percussion makes an appearance, and in tandem with a singular guitar line, it breaks through the fog just right. The guitar line is almost too infectious, and he even gets a guitar solo at the end that extends past the end of the rest of the song. If the rest of the elements have been dampened to sonic oblivion, then this one has been manipulated in just the opposite fashion. It’s hard and crunchy—the perfect way to usher in the next half of the record.8.0
5. Family Portrait
This is the first time the sound genuinely sounds happy, in instrumentation and in vocals. But unfortunately, it’s a bit of a miss as a whole song. A jangly guitar line gives it the summery sheen that Real Estate have perfected in recent years, but it’s not a good fit with Quever’s cynical lyrics. It’s sleepy, but not in a good way like the rest of his songs are. In different circumstances, this would definitely be a hit. It’s almost there. But the formulaic instrumental breakdown really sinks the ship. “it’s a goddamn wasteland, what they did to the place.7.3
6. Easter Morning
The greatest thing about Papercuts is that their songs feel like stripped down sessions recorded in a small space. On this intimate track, they return to the piano-guitar interplay with some light tambourine percussion. The piano melody that’s woven deep in the skeleton of this song is such an earworm, and it’s amazing to see what other instruments they use to adorn this simple melody line. Being the longest track of the album, it tends to repeat itself by the end; yet they don’t seem to lose steam at all. They keep it fresh by adding layers of interesting cymbal manipulations and even a, “La La La,” section. Four chords is really all it takes to create a woozy slow-burner.8.1
7. Psychic Friends
Not counting the weird fade-in at the beginning, this song is flawless. Completely stripped down to just his vocals and an acoustic guitar, they take the minimalism of “Easter Morning” to the next level (and it’s gorgeous). Quever’s quivering and hushed vocals vocals are at their moody best, especially with the depressing subject matter. He pines, “I keep thinking that somehow/I’ll reach you at last.” Will he reach them? We’ll never know. And that’s the sad truth about this heartbreaking saga. While we’re left wondering about the conclusion, at least this heartbreak was channeled into a beautiful song.9.0
8. Afterlife Blues
This song continues to explore some of the themes of identity and rejection, but is musically pretty lackluster and lifeless. Ironically, it’s one of the happier-sounding tracks on the record—it’s in a major key and dabbles in the expansive orchestration of pianos and guitars that worked well for a bunch of his other songs. The undeniably catchy, “La La La,” section makes a comeback once again. However, it feels almost forced. His vocals are the redeeming element of this song. He laments that he “sometimes...feel[s] lost in the wilderness,” a greatly relatable metaphor. And the debut of the upper part of his vocal range during the chorus sounds triumphant.7.6
9. Tourist
Starting with a simple piano line and building from there, this track is very reminiscent of the opener “Still Knocking At the Door”—it’s a beautiful way to come full circle on an equally beautiful record. Around halfway, a dreamy breakdown takes over the track that shows he’s been saving his energy until the final moment. His vocals break out of their whisper to soar to their most powerful heights backed by an instrumental swirl informed by 60s psych rock bathed in echoey reverb. An organ, atmospheric backing vocals, and heavy-hitting drum fills take the track home, even though Quever sings here that he can’t find it. Lyrically, he hasn’t hit any amazing emotional breakthrough. But this record shows that it’s not really necessary. He colors his fears into music so beautifully on this record, and this is a great way to end it.8.8
Written by Hailey Simpson
Now attending college at UC Berkeley, Hailey's main passions in life are attending every concert she possibly can while keeping up with her studies, drinking copious amounts of Philz Coffee, and spinning tunes on her college radio station KALX.



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