David Karsten Daniels
There's a tremendous amount of conflict at the core of David Karsten Daniels' Fat Cat Records debut, Sharp Teeth. From the tired lovers that his words bring to life to the opposing emotions and countless moods that collide within each of the album's 10 tracks, Daniel's follow-up to the stark, strange Angles is all about pretty conflict and consonant discord. Or more directly, it's about searching for peace—and, maybe, finding it.
Daniels' take on the quest is, at least, startlingly objective and, at most, eloquently sobering. On "Jesus and the Devil," which he recorded three years ago with his brother in Texas, he burrs, "I saw Jesus and the Devil, but they looked just the same." It's a classic sentiment, an archetype even—good/bad, right/wrong, light/dark. How do we tell them apart, or can we? "I tried to get on track again, I tried to be good. I was looking for the answers, I was reading the book," he continues, "but I couldn't find the answers, try as I would." The song promises a searching heart, but its conclusions are troubled at best.
Indeed, Sharp Teeth isn't easy. It wades in contradictions and answerless questions concerning purpose. Even the music—a complex palate by 19 musicians lending both hands and horns—is purposefully opaque. "Jesus" is bolstered by brass swells and subdued by understated organ and meowing pedal steel. "Scripts" begins tiny: An organ wobbles with double stops, its chords ringing true over Daniels' voice and skip-rhythm acoustic guitar. Then it goes for Dixie blood, a funeral line horn procession lamenting (or celebrating?) the death of Daniels' love.
But it's not just the ultra-instrumentation technique that gives this record its girth. The tempos crawl at a sub-codeine pace. It's not slow-core or beard-folk, but there is something approaching depression-borne laziness. Excepting "American Pastime"—the ostensible "single," a bass-drum-and-guitar herk-jerk likening a relationship to a baseball game—the record is glacially paced, without ever being dull. That's the arrangements, producer and Bu Hanan in-houser Alex Lazara's respectful production, and Daniels' creative cadences at work. Take, for instance, the record's punctuation, "We Go Right On," where the singer peppers his song's sparseness with a disjointed melody and once again calls the conflict back.
"There's not a pretty way to paint the way you and I tear up each other. It's just sick and selfish and short-sighted," Daniels skips over his guitar, free and sour and little else. "And even when we can see it, we go right on." Silence sits for a second. Then, there's an explosion of color, voices joining, soaring, practically hollering: "We are not going to stop."
"We are not going to stop"? Such a purposefully ambivalent refrain makes it unclear if the author realizes the incongruity of the relationship he's describing or if he's just accepted it and chosen to press stop. The climax, at least, rings decidedly hopeful, ultimately suggesting that the peace at the center of Sharp Teeth's quest can ultimately be found, even if that means a whole lot of hurt along the way.