* Photo by Daniel Muller
by Cory Kibler
At the time of this writing, I have yet to hear any Baby Walrus. However, I do know that Chris Senseney was the main dude in that band, and he’s also the lead vocalist in Big Harp, his new band with wife/collaborator Stefanie Drootin (Consafos, The Good Life). Because of this, I can only assume that he had a deep rambling baritone in Baby Walrus as well. I might be wrong: He might have gone through puberty in between bands, going from a second alto to a baritone or even a bass. But this would be very odd, and so it is not worth exploring.
Hearing a high-pitched male voice in indie music isn’t that rare (it seems like everyone’s singing falsetto these days), but you don’t hear a super-solid baritone that often (or, maybe I’m just hanging out in the wrong opium dens). It takes a little getting used to. The first time I heard “Fake Empire” from The National, I said “What the fuck?” aloud — now I love it, and can’t imagine it any other way. The same is true for the opening track of White Hat, “Nadine.” I first wondered how someone could sing such a note — it seems almost affected. But then I realized that some men actually sound like men (Tom Waits; Isaac Hayes; Chris Senseney; Dr. Claw). For Senseney to sound like Bon Iver or Elliott Smith would be unnatural. And by the time you get to the bookending last track, “Oh Nadine,” everything is in its right place.
Stream White Hat here:
Big Harp's music lends itself quite naturally to Senseney’s voice. There are a few tracks that are a little more delicate and “indie" (such as the breezy "Everybody Pays"), but for the most part, we’ve got a bunch of rootin’-tootin’ road-ramblin’ gun-totin’ whiskey-drankin’ boot-tappin’ reverbed ragtime folk songs. I’ve heard the cliché “tear in your beer” used before to describe this kind of music, but it doesn’t mean that much at this point, so I’m going to make up a new rhyming cliché right now for this brand of heavy-hearted, driven and sometimes dark music:
“Gun in your bun (hamburger).” Probably too parenthetical.
“Arpeggio in your Carpaccio?" That doesn’t quite rhyme, although both words are romantic in nature.
“Finger pickin’ in your finger chicken?" I guess “finger chicken” just means chicken that you eat without utensils.
“Tumbleweed in your … weed?" Far be it from me to glorify casual drug-abuse on such a website. I’ll come back to this.
The first song that caught my ear was “Here’s Hoping,” for a number of reasons. It’s up-tempo in that old-fashioned rock n’ roll 6/8 time (think "Oh! Darling" by The Beatles), which sets it apart from much of the record, which is in 4/4. The bass glows, and the guitar notes shimmer. Most of all, Senseney’s range is showcased like it ought to be. He gets out of the basement pitch-wise, and even does some vocal cadences that take him up to tenor-territory. He nails it, and it makes me wish he exercised more range on the rest of the songs. Speaking of Bon Iver, it’s like how the “My, my my!” part of “Skinny Love” is the only time you hear Justin Vernon hit any low-ish notes on For Emma, Forever Ago, and it really makes you ache to hear it elsewhere on the record. I hope that Senseney experiments more with his vocal abilities and range on Big Harp's next effort. Judging by how comfortable he seems up there, it shouldn’t be a challenge.
I also hope to hear more of Drootin. She plays on the record, but a female-fronted song (or even some dual lead male/female vocals) would have gone long way in giving these songs some musical color. There are some female background vocals during a few spots on the record (most notably on the gorgeous "Let Me Lend My Shoulder"), but those instances are few, and leave you wanting more on this “sob on your kabob” record.
Finally, it has come to my attention that Senseney hails from Valentine, Neb. This makes me wonder if he has ever been to the Arabia Ranch, the childhood home of my friend Richard? One can only hope.
* Big Harp releases White Hat tonight, Wednesday, Sept. 7 in the Slowdown front room with David Dondero and Thunder Power. The 9 p.m. show costs $10.
Cory Kibler grew up in Ventura, Calif., and Colorado Springs, Colo., before coming to Nebraska for college and graduate school in 2000. He has slowly transformed into a Nebraskan, which left a mess. He plays music as a solo artist and with The Sleepover, and he has played in the past with such bands as Shacker and Robot Creep Closer. He helps run netlabel Mr. Furious Records with his friend C. Howie Howard. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He misses you. So bad.