Bartees Strange Reaps the Harvest of Intimacy on 'Farm to Table'
Published Jun 15, 2022Bartees Strange has been on a meteoric rise since releasing acclaimed debut Live Forever in late 2020. He's toured with Phoebe Bridgers, Courtney Barnett and Car Seat Headrest, performed on Late Night With Seth Meyers, and has generally been heralded as a shot in the arm for indie rock, largely due to his fearless, genre-agnostic songwriting and his innate charisma. Sophomore album Farm to Table somewhat streamlines Live Forever's buffet of rock, emo, folk, rap and electronica into something more considered, a multi-course meal that brings us into Bartees' world and invites us to spend the evening.
Often when talking about music that is intimate, focus is placed on sonic signifiers like quiet acoustic instruments, hushed vocals and roomy, inviting production. But intimacy can also mean a specificity of writing and perspective. Bartees excels at channeling such firsthand minutia into maximalist musical moments — subtle remembrances outstripping their expected vessels to reach heights of intensity normally filled by only the broadest, most populist of sentiments.
On opener "Heavy Heart," Strange compliments someone on how they look in their cherry scarf, reminisces about trips to Toronto, and fails to see the God in a life spent rushing around — but he does so as some of the most immaculately rendered rock guitars of recent memory jostle for space with scattershot snare rolls that recall Bryan Devendorf's brawniest beats for the National, Bartees' 4AD labelmates and the object of his 2020 covers EP Say Goodbye to Pretty Boy. The song somehow also includes a celebratory, brass-assisted pile-driving riff in the bridge, and a downcast double-time rap verse. It's a lot, but it feels lived-in and true to Bartees' experience.
"Cosigns" is noticeably less successful at making the artist's particular circumstances feel universal, but maybe that's alright. As the song reveals, there's interesting tension to be mined between the singer's well-earned boasting about his famous white indie rocker friends in the song's hip-hop-indebted first half, and the self-lacerating calls of "It's never enough!" over the caustic TV on the Radio-style bombast of the outro — a phrase that evokes both the unrealistic expectations he places on himself as a creative individual, and those placed on him as a Black man attempting to succeed in predominantly white spaces regimented by systemic racism.
"Mullholand Dr" and "Wretched" continue the artist's genre experimentation — the former welding the emo revival's chiming electric guitars to gliding, widescreen R&B, while the latter's chorus morphs into unabashed four-on-the-floor neon rave pop. While these moments show Bartees becoming better at synthesizing his influences into a signature, idiosyncratic sound, unified by his incredible voice and melodic instinct, they're quickly revealed to be a bit of a feint. Farm to Table front-loads the louder, flashier cuts, before pulling the rug from under the listener's feet to reveal something gentler, but no less stirring: a back half of music riffing primarily on folk, country and soul.
Where Live Forever cut "Far" quoted Bon Iver's "Skinny Love" perhaps a little too transparently to ever transcend, "Black Gold" channels Justin Vernon to staggering effect. Over a gently finger-picked acoustic riff, Bartees' vocals purr through low-octave autotune before rising to a stunning falsetto on the chorus. "I can recall waiting for you," he sings, as bubbly, programmed percussion propels the song forward. Then, as everything but the guitar arpeggios drop out, home recordings of Strange's family members singing over the years float in and linger for a moment. It's the album's most arresting moment; a swirl of comfort, elation and easy love dispelling all of the anxieties and conflicted feelings of leaving home.
Strange's relationship to his parents and his early home life is a recurring motif on Farm to Table. "Tours," the album's midpoint pivot into folkier territory, finds Bartees contrasting his father's military tours of duty to his own newfound life on the road. "Where is Kuwait, is that in the States?," he muses as a child displaced, struggling to remember an early life marked by lack of permanence, and perhaps parental structure. Through it, he never casts judgment or moralizes, he merely interrogates. Here, his voice and guitar playing are at their most theatrical, evoking the late Jeff Buckley — finger-picked chords modulating into a minor key as Bartees repeats, "'Cause I'm your son...," a hint of acridity slipping into his voice before resolving back into that honeyed major to complete the thought: "And that's all I want."
Farm to Table ends with its most naked moment on "Hennessy," an acoustic soul come-on that sounds like a single, improvised live take. You can hear musicians shifting in their seats, flubbed claps, over-excited ad-libs, fingers sliding on acoustic guitar strings and the warmth of a room shared by talented players who have nothing but love for one another. "Can't feel the pain, if I'm holding on to you," Bartees intones, his harmonized voice and the loose, warm arrangement bringing to mind the legendary D'Angelo. "I'm talking about forever," sings a chorus of voices in perfectly flawed unison towards the end of the song, echoing the title of Bartees' debut. While Farm to Table isn't quite the classic that he surely has in him, we should consider ourselves fortunate that Bartees is in it for the long haul. (4AD)