The enigmatically monikered State Shirt is a one-man musical miracle worker from California who’s managed to fashion a flawed but ultimately rewarding debut album with ‘Don’t Die’. Self-recorded and produced in his home, the eleven tracks on show have a broad and involving sweep; although defiantly independent in spirit he could easily garner the mantle ‘The Phil Spector of the Bedroom Studio’. In preparing his opus, State Shirt has thrown a multitude of influences into the liquidizer but manages to stamp his own authority across the results.
‘Straw Man’ opens the account with a looping wolf howl coupled to a break-beat with throbbing base-line that resembles DJ Shadow’s ‘The Changeling’. Swirling strings and a slow, funereal vocal flesh out the track; the mournful voice one of the few constants in the album’s mix of styles.
Track two and a great song title: ‘It Is A Shame My Binoculars Don’t Work At Night’. Kicking off with the “pots and pans” percussion and D.I.Y acoustic blues of ‘Loser’ era Beck, the track finally segues into a cinematic ambience that catches you off-guard. ‘Life Isn’t Everything’ briefly continues the quiet mood but soon changes to a drive-time LA rock verse, rising to a chorus that could be an outtake from The Flaming Lips’ ‘The Soft Bulletin’. State Shirt’s lyrics match the epic intensity of the song: ‘I tried everything, oh no / It’s still haunting me so / One of these days I’m going to die / Life isn’t everything, but it’s all we have.’
Where ‘Life Isn’t Everything’ stares ahead to the inevitable, ‘I’m Not A Kid Anymore’ looks back and takes stock of where State Shirt is now: ‘Growing up seems so long ago / The only thing that I’ve ever known / Is that I’m not a kid anymore’. The song ends with a home recording of a boy’s voice, presumably State Shirt as a kid, singing: ‘I’m laying on the couch trying to think of songs’. This touchingly personal song comes wrapped in a cloth that could be a cut from one of Throwing Muse’s electric ballads.
We’re only four tracks into ‘Don’t Die’ and already the brilliant ambition and boundless talent of State Shirt is beyond question. The experimentation is endless: ‘Postcards’ is built around a loop of human beat box percussion and an angular guitar line that’s halfway between Radiohead and The Folk Implosion. ‘Highway’ offers some musical consolidation, picking up on the epic qualities of what’s gone before; but that still doesn’t stop State Shirt book-ending the track with an opening synthesizer sequence reminiscent of a John Carpenter soundtrack and a tail-end with some serious metal guitar of the Faith No More variety. ‘Edison’s Machine’ threatens to be a bridge too far, the crescendo and cacophony threatening to render the song untenable at one point. Just when you think he’s lost it, he releases the tension with another ambient drop off.
From here on in the album becomes patchy as State Shirt struggles to maintain the musical and lyrical drama that he has sustained faultlessly for the previous 35 minutes. ‘Indefinite Acrobat’ is rudderless and sorely needs a hook to stop its meandering. Musically, the title track is the album’s most direct song but even though it’s the album’s shortest piece it feels drawn out. Compared to what’s gone on before, ‘A Variation on Two’ and ‘Back to The Airplanes’ seem devoid of energy, State Shirt finally running out of steam and resorting to the pace of a dirge on both. The dried-up well of ideas contrasts starkly with the earlier flow of creative juices.
With four out of the eleven tracks failing to cut the mustard you’d be forgiven for thinking “Why bother?”
The truth is that State Shirt leaps higher than most artists these days. At times on ‘Don’t Die’ he spectacularly misses the branch; but when he does catch hold, it’s captivating and convincing.