The other day I was sad. I was grieving for the old normal and needed to shut off my brain for a little while. I put on my headphones, spread myself onto my bedroom floor, and pushed play on Kyle Stringer's solo project House Plants (which is both the name of the "band" as well as the title for the album.). I cried for the first time in a while. You may think that a weird statement to start an album review, but in my mind, if music evokes strong emotion, it's an excellent album. The crying led to a smile, which led to a laugh, then onto a small boogie-dance session, which ended with thinking many thoughts and feelings about my life. All that and more are encompassed in the various moods of House Plants.
Stringer has grown up playing music, starting on Euphonium (a tiny tuba) in elementary school as well as learning guitar. "My love has pretty much always been the bass, though," Stringer says. "I love how it glues music together. It's really the unsung hero of music! Listening to it and playing it is so rewarding." He also works as a music therapist at a Veteran's Home in Napa County, where he uses music to heal.
Up until the life-sucking shutdowns, Stringer was in Oakland-based rock band Milk For The Angry. But because surviving in life is about making the best of bad situations, Stringer felt that now that he wasn't able to gig, he had the chance to record many of his own songs that he had been stockpiling over the last five years. Like most musicians recording in this particular historical period of time, Stringer created this album by recording in his bedroom on his computer while doing most of the vocals and instrumentation himself (including his Squier Strat and Silvertone Archtop plus lots of pedal effect, as well as his trusty Rickenbacker 4003 bass and more). He had friends on board who filled in various musical parts from their own bedrooms across the country with file sharing. Welcome to the Pandemic Age of recording music.
House Plants is defiantly an emotional album, but not in a blatant way. There is a soothing feeling about the sound; there is familiarity and a groundedness to what you hear. It's like an old friend. It's like a sonic hug or cozy lap to crawl into; it feels safe and warm while simultaneously allowing you to feel what you need to feel. The vocals are mixed beautifully with the music so as not to be "in your face," and there are enough electronic tweaks and gurgles that make the music come alive with a modern edge. The combination creates a soundscape with layered depths and deeper meanings. The lyrics are simple, but the stories convey universal experiences. Stringer's singing style could be considered quirky, but he claims that and uses his voice beautifully. I love the lack of perfection because it sounds real instead of overproduced.
The album opens with "The Park," an intimate snapshot into moments and memories of a relationship, with its dreamy and layered vocals combined with acoustic guitars. "Camper" was an immediate favorite of mine. The beauty of this song opened my heart to feel with the lyrical poetry, "And in the mirror you can't see what is beyond you…Open a window just to feel the world passing down below…I breathe it in my lungs… It's all that I can do.” It starts softly but then leads to slamming guitar chaos that made my soul free. "Tonight" is a pop ride about missing a lover. "Weed Eater" is a profound track with a slow-build of sound; guitars and keyboards and vocals all enmeshed in feeling and mood while the vocals call out, "Is this world becoming a thought that seems so stale?
I think I've lost the stability in admitting I'm afraid". "Future Vision" takes on a bit of electronica with dark overtones, while the final track "Conflicted" leaves the listener thinking about the continual cycles of life and death by stating, "Sometimes life doesn't last a lifetime…And sometimes it lasts longer".
Stringer is connected to music and needs it in his life to feel sane. Even with the possibility of our local music scene not rebounding after all this chaos, he will still allow the creative muse of music to come into being through his soul. "I don't think I could stop if I tried," Stringer admits. "I think everyone feels that way in some way, even if their way of being creative is cooking or organizing. You have to keep doing what fills you up, and for me, that's music. Especially in these confines, I feel the need to create music at home. It's nice to have space to do that, especially with insanity happening around us. Hopefully, someday, gigs and concerts will come back, and we won't have to do it in a in a plastic space bubble."
Josiah Zimmerman: Drums
Alex Doolittle: Additional Drums
Lara Avery: Vocals, Tiny Keyboard, Scream
Erin Moore: Additional Vocals
Matt Mittman: Additional Guitar
Ben Sauder: Vocals
Chase Horseman: Guitar, Synths, Mixing, Co-Producing
Joel Nanos: Mastering
Nicholas Stahl: Layout & Design
Josiah Zimmerman: Leafy Collage
Chloe Breau: Cover Artwork