Christopher Paul Stelling
Labor Against Waste
“Records are kinda like taxidermy,” muses Christopher Paul Stelling with a smile. “When you make a record, you take this beautiful living thing, which is a song, an animal, and you kill it and it gets kinda gross, you strip the skin off and then you try to assemble it in a way that makes it look like it did when it was alive.”
Grisly metaphors aside, this is how 33-year-old, Brooklyn-based Stelling crafted his third long-player, Labor Against Waste, his first via a label, his first with a band. What would have started as something living, in his head, was then broken down over the course of four recording sessions (in between European tours), and then built up again into something equally as beautiful, yet different. For this is a record which emanates a ‘different’ beauty from all corners, a true journey of a record for a man who spent his earlier years imbued with a fierce wanderlust, something which came to affect his music in a myriad ways.
Labor Against Waste is a folk record for sure, a true album (rather than just a clutch of songs), telling ten stories, all wrought from them mind of this up-and-coming troubadour. Colouring his nylon-string guitar and oft disparate vocals are strains of the blues, of country music, of flamenco, all coming together to form what is surely one of the finer roots albums released so far this year.
It’s an album which undulates, it ebbs and flows, it moves effortlessly from whisper quiet to high tide loud, sometimes traipsing, other times roaring. Stelling’s fingerstyle guitar brings to mind images of, in equal part, Jose Gonzalez and Chris Smither. Certain arrangements are all Zeppelin III, even his vocal sometimes reminiscent of a younger, folkier Robert Plant.
The track ‘Horse’, sitting about midway through the set, is almost a physical slap to the face, it bolts from the gate and pounds along at a rapid clip, very much a folk/blues, his voice deeper and more powerful; it stands apart from the rest of the record due to its size and volume and yet is a perfect load-bearing song, holding up the equally powerful yet quieter tracks either side of it.
“I don’t play blues music,” says Stelling, “I play music that is inspired by the blues, but to me, blues music is just another form of folk music, you know? And folk music is just whatever evolved regionally in any given place. People had a certain set of tools, and they had to express themselves, they had to celebrate and they had to mourn. That’s all music is.”
On Labor Against Waste, Stelling isn’t celebrating or mourning anything in particular. Lyrically, the album talks of persistence, of moving on, of sometimes having to “give up in order to keep trying.” As far as he’s concerned, it’s a folk album and it’s inspired by his experience at a certain time, which is of course what folk music is. The fact he’s more than able to turn these experiences into songs which resonate, points to his strength as a folkie, his talent and drive, which come across on the album in spades.
Bringing in, for the first time, a slew of outside musicians, the record is awash in subtle instrumentation backing up his guitar and vocal; percussion and harmonica, French horn and various strings, all adding a soft addition to Stelling’s tried and true musical foundation.
His first two records (Songs Of Praise & Scorn (2012) and 2013’s False Cities), both self-released, brought Stelling to the attention of many, but it’ll be this album which will see his star rise highest.
Samuel J. Fell