Album Review: Justin K Comer & the Unblessed Rest of Us — (self-titled EP)

When Gabi Vanek announced on Facebook that the catch-all Ox Cart project would be formalized into a new Iowa City experimental music label, the skies opened and angels sang.

Well, not technically. But I might have squeeeed. Ghost Actions, Vanek’s 2020 project with Will Yager and the label’s technical first release, was a lovely early pandemic piece, literalizing the doubt and frustration of that time.

The label’s newest release, a self-titled EP from Justin K Comer & the Unblessed Rest of Us (out on tape Jan. 15), shows just what this community has to offer. With the Rest — Vanek on electronics, Jake Jones on drums and Yager on bass — guitarist Comer (also on radio and Zoom G2.1U effects pedal) offers dense novellas of sound, all spontaneous compositions credited to the entire group. These tracks are proof positive that collaborative composition is conversation. The back and forth between the group members is organic and familiar, speaking to a deep level of trust as well as individual skill.

Opener “Pray For Us Sinners” deftly employs vocal samples, both clear and emphatic (as with a segment from a speech on uprisings against police violence) and modified and twisted, as the dial spins to less defensible topics. It runs the gamut of human expression, ceding the foreground to the drums for a while partway through, which echo and emulate the mix of signal to noise going on around them. Things feel dire toward the end.

Track two, which is untitled, enters with a bit more brightness, if not exactly hope. This is my favorite of the four; although it is even more meandering than the others, it also feels more purposeful, a quiet journey, a rhythmic traveling clacking and sometimes padding. It’s that moment at a party at 3 a.m., after an intense and heady conversation, when someone says, “Hey, let’s all go for a walk!” There’s subdued movement and soft side chatter and some inevitable playground swings that spark levity tinged with sadness: joy recollected from a distance.

“Catholic Independence” returns to clips of conversations on public safety and more, but it’s less tolerant of them. An almost traditional musical breakdown mid-track wants to cloud the fury with beauty, but the background buzz cannot be drowned. The drum riffs are familiar, frustrated, clipped and confrontational, before the track closes out on an ethereal ball of fuzz and tone and the repeated distinguishable snippet “activate independence.”

On “I Don’t Trust the Government,” the closing track, Jones’ drums are again front and center, telling the story with a frenetic urgency. Comer’s guitar is desperate to get a word in, joining like that one friend who sits back largely listening for hours then coughs up something profound. Everyone is in their element on this track, which dances between components and instruments with elegance, confidence and intent. The deep, droning close followed by echoing faint slams is an apt finale.

The titles feel appended after the fact, like names given to abstract paintings: both inspired by the content and part of it. Together, they frame and clarify the Joycean storytelling throughout. The fun of listening to this album is eclipsed only by the tease of how engaging it would be to see this group perform in person. There is so much more here than can be captured on an EP.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 302.

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