Astronautalis with Bleubird,
Cracker Jackson for
Orange You Glad Fest
9 p.m. Sunday, May 17
Will's Pub, 407-898-5070
"I am a soldier, baby/Who works just like a slave." Those are the sing-song, honky-tonk first lines of Pomegranate, the best hip-hop album of last year that wasn't actually a hip-hop album. The song, titled "The Wondersmith and His Sons," is by former Jacksonville Beach resident and Orlando regular Astronautalis, and a year later the words still ring true.
Astronautalis, aka Andy Bothwell, is dragging himself through sleepy Haw River, N.C., nearing the end of a tour that he estimates crossed the 100-show barrier between Europe and the U.S. Although he now resides in Seattle — he moved there to pursue a serious relationship that didn't work out — Bothwell timed it all to conclude at Will's Pub, whose old location he's called "my home," this weekend as a headliner at the Orange You Glad Fest.
As a self-proclaimed "history nerd," Bothwell's trek carries special meaning. Pomegranate is a densely layered narrative incorporating world history into diverse instrumentation that relies heavily on indie rock simplicity and haunting storytelling that introduces characters living on the edge of mortality. Inspired by the myth of Persephone, the Sino-British opium trade and a collection of adventure novels he stumbled upon years ago, Bothwell says writing the album was a journey that found the characters telling their own stories through him.
"It was really kind of arduous to get the characters right and the storylines right. I didn't know how ‘The Wondersmith and His Sons' was going to end," says Bothwell. "Sometimes it started with a melody and sometimes the lyrics, but all of it came from research. I think I wrote probably 70 percent of that record with Wikipedia open, you know?"
In a rap climate that finds hip-hop artists' lyrical optics either too near-sighted, restricting their narratives to internal conflict and their immediate surroundings, or too far-sighted, looking to the cosmos for zodiacal answers, Astronautalis has managed to carve out his own back alley of storytelling, leaping through time and cultures as an observer of human evolution and its dark underpinnings. Never is there a better example of his wayfaring than Pomegranate's masterpiece, "Two Years Before the Mast," a pressing melodrama in which a deckhand discovers and hides a female stowaway (played beautifully in duet by Texas singer Sarah Jaffe) on an East Indian trading ship, an act that ends in tragedy "for the sin of a reckless dream." "If word got loose he'd face the lash/And 13 loops would hold him fast and silent," sings Jaffe as the bass line affirms her suspicions. "Devil got poor Persephone but they can't take/They can't take him from me."
"That song is really the key to the whole album," says Bothwell. "I actively tried to choose characters that were not me because the last record was just so about me. It was very self-indulgent — intentionally so; I wanted to make a record about where I grew up and my youth, but I've got a couple more cards in my hand now."
The result was a hip-hop oddity that drew comparisons to decidedly non-rap artists like Beck and Nick Cave from national critics. Although he foresees a future in which an Astronautalis show would essentially amount to him behind a piano, rather than the energetic flailing and top-of-the-dome freestyle that he was initially known for, thanks to YouTube — "It still precedes me," he admits — Bothwell thinks today's audience's disillusionment with both mainstream and indie rap was inevitable.
"There was such a pushback when indie rap came to prominence. ‘We don't have anything to do with mainstream rap. Fuck all of that. We're not these commercial sellouts' or whatever. So there was a desire to distinguish yourself in some way. With rap music, my biggest disappointment is that a lot of the people that I really admired as rap musicians, who pushed that, initially found it, hit it and then never moved. Aesop Rock still puts out good songs, but he makes boring records. It's the same stuff."
What makes Pomegranate a standout is not only the choose-your-own-adventure homework that Bothwell's lyrics enable for those seeking further answers to his rap riddles, but the accessibility of the tracks themselves. One doesn't have to know what a diving bell is to appreciate the frantic distortion of "Secrets of the Undersea Bell," or need to have read Fred Grove's Trouble Hunter to follow Astronautalis' Revolutionary War anthem based on the book. In fact, he hasn't read Trouble Hunter either. Or Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s novel Two Years Before the Mast.
"I'm definitely curious, but I didn't want to read any of them 'cause I wanted to have my own interpretation of `the titles`," says Bothwell.
His decision to remain unencumbered with rigid interpretation in favor of listenability came from a lesson handed down to him by one of his inspirations.
"`Atmosphere MC` Slug is by no means my buddy or anything, but we know who each other are and he gave me one of the most important pieces of advice I've ever gotten. It kind of irked me when I first got it because I was young and full of piss and vinegar, but he was right. He pulled me aside at a show in Jacksonville and said, ‘Hey man, what you're doing is really good, but nobody knows what you're talking about.' I think people got disappointed with Atmosphere and the way that they went, but I think that's what `Atmosphere` wanted all along. I think it was the fans who put this presumption on them that they were going to be the Flaming Lips of rap music or whatever."
To keep things fresh, Astronautalis is developing several side projects that will reflect the diverse expectations of his fans.
"Now that it's not cool to make rap music anymore, like indie, artsy rap music, I'm getting an idea of where I want to go. I've got the tent poles in the ground but I don't have the canopy over it yet. Rap is just becoming another tool, `but` it's still the best tool out there. I'll always come back to it in some form or another."jstrout@@orlandoweekly.com