Michael Nau has been the frontman for Page France and Cotton Jones. On his solo debut, he displays his penchant for uplift: Sumptuously warm, the set feels invitingly casual, loose-strung, and slightly accidental, a collection of messy indie-rock demos that he fleshes out into surprising songs.
From the pastel indie pop of Page France to the Americana of Cotton Jones, there’s an airiness to frontman Michael Nau’s songwriting that belies its melodic durability. His masterful instinct for arrangement, along with his reedy voice, earns Nau a place in the rock’n’roll underdogs’ Hall of Fame. It’s nearly impossible, hearing Page France’s giddily twee “Trampoline” or Cotton Jones’ roadhouse shuffle “Blood Red Sentimental Blues,” to resist the resulting rush of companionable good feeling that Nau and his bandmates create. He is very good at uplift.
His solo debut came together over Cotton Jones’ post-Tall Hours in the Glowstream hiatus, as he started a family with wife/bandmate Whitney McGraw. Constructed from old demos, Mowing casts a drowsy, hypnotic spell that unites the genres and subgenres it visits. Sumptuously warm, the set feels invitingly casual, loose-strung, and slightly accidental. Hushed, hesitant doot-doot-doots and tinkly keyboards dot “So, So Long”; splashes of sampled, icy piano prod the shuffling, lovely Nau/McGraw duet “Maralou” forward. A Mellotron winds and wends its way through “Winter Beat,” the song’s sweet’n’sour melodic sense and tramping rhythm section seemingly piped in from the far side of a blizzard. The scratchy, indistinct “Your Jewel” marries washed-out reggae to sleepwalking gospel, a synthesis that gels far better than it has any right to.
Album closer “In There” undergoes an unlikely yet convincing metamorphosis that sets it apart from the rest of the album. Bird calls loop, while strings cycle inconclusively and distortion encroaches. A snatch of stentorian dialogue peeks out of the noise, and is cut short; this all seems to add up to the introduction of a very esoteric sound collage. Then lonesome guitars pluck out a velvety, countried blues soaked in pedal steel as Nau begins to sing, double-tracked and with great feeling, a tear-jerking hymn suited both to mid-20th century railroad tramps and lost souls at any point in history. The grain and twang in his vocal tone is startlingly, authentically wizened, and it’s equally possible to imagine him performing this song on the Mississippi delta or an artfully-aged 45 version hoodwinking the next Harry Smith. In a way, “In There” is classic Nau: crystallizing the essential sadness of life before dispensing morsels of hopeful life advice. But it’s also the moment on Mowing where the evolution of his voice leaps into its sharpest focus, when it becomes apparent that, stylistically speaking, he may be capable of anything.