(Self-released, digital download)
You put Tommy Bobcat ’s new album, For Karen, on your headphones, lock the front door behind you and start walking aimlessly. The album opens with a simple, bass-string-oriented, acoustic-guitar-picked pattern. You wonder if Tommy Bobcat is a folk singer. Ten seconds later, something atonal (“BWUEERR”) drops into the mix out of nowhere. Clearly, this is not a folk album. The finger picking speeds up and the song abruptly ends. It’s anyone’s guess what comes next.
The second track is louder and busier. For a minute, it sounds cohesive, but that doesn’t last. Something jazzy starts up, but it definitely isn’t jazz. It makes you wonder if there’s a definition to the term “experimental music” or if the whole point of the genre is that there’s not.
From here, the album begins to make you feel as if you’re underwater, in part because of the glub-glub bass slap. You realize that no vocals have surfaced yet and feel certain that, if they did, they would be spoken, not sung. For Karen feels more like a performance piece than an album. You read that these songs were written and produced in memory of the composer’s mother, Karen, who died of breast cancer in 2010. You listen to the unwieldy soundscapes as one man’s erratic emotional turmoil, and something seems to click.
The underwater sensation becomes impossible to ignore. You are immersed, drowning, and panic beats on your eardrums. You heard once that drowning is one of the most peaceful ways to die, but this is unpleasant. You want to listen to something else.
“Frogs,” the album’s fifth track, delivers a moment of calm. You’re now vibing to a traditional reggae sound. The lead guitar noodles harmlessly, and you almost let yourself relax. But the reggae rhythm guitar builds, and the once-playful drums begin to crash all around you before completely falling apart.
The title track begins with an ocean-side soundtrack of seagulls and waves crashing against the shore. This seems appropriate enough. The song is breezy, the album’s highlight. It’s the same meandering lead guitar that’s been pushing you around for the whole album, but here it’s pleasant. You notice that the guitar is soloing the vocal melody to “Mandy,” which is strangely comforting.
For Karen concludes with an audio-collage of voicemails. It’s odd to hear something so familiar after the stress journey you’ve just been on. It reminds you of the existence of others. Relieved, you search for the perfect record to slow your pulse back down.
For Karen by Tommy Bobcat is available for free download at tommybobcat.bandcamp.com .