Singer-songwriter indie rock from the aughts has a special place in my heart. I was discovering my musical taste and with it trying to understand my own identity around the time of Jack’s Mannequin’s sophomore release, 2008’s emotional journey The Glass Passenger. If music were astrology, that album would be the sign under which I was born.
At a Northside Record Fair about two years ago, I ran into Melvin Dillon for the first time and discovered his small-batch vinyl pressing company Soul Step Records. After we talked about record-hunting for a few minutes, he handed me a pair of headphones and dropped the needle on a Scattered Trees album: Sympathy. He must have read my sonic horoscope; I fell in love with the sound.
Naturally, now that I work with Melvin through INHAILER, I was ecstatic to hear that Soul Step is re-releasing another Scattered Trees album. Songs For My Grandfather is a work you can’t just stream on Spotify, making the vinyl record more of an experience than just another album. Meditate on it with me for a minute.
The record opens with “Most Beautiful Song,” which starts out simply enough: melodic guitar reverberating under vocals reminiscent of The Shins, picking up a little way in with vocal harmonies and a distorted drumbeat. Like the rest of the album, it’s simple and placid on the surface but complex below. At the halfway mark, the song fully bursts forth with a fuzzed-out chorus and a guitar solo that will have you closing your eyes and swaying.
The structure of “Most Beautiful Song” mimics the way Scattered Trees grew. Songwriter Nate Eiesland moved to Chicago from Minnesota in 2003 and began writing a song a month. By the following year, he debuted his first album, Hollohills, before filling out his lineup with a guitarist, Justin Eisenbraun, and a bassist, Ryne Estwing.
Scattered Trees’ sophomore release came in 2006 following the death of Eiesland’s grandfather; and as the title suggests, Songs For My Grandfather draws heavily from the depths of nostalgia. When it brings up religion, it’s not really ironic; it’s more the smell of freshly baked cookies in your grandparents’ kitchen. In others places, the soft piano is the warmth of home on an unexpected snow day. The roughly-strum acoustic guitar is the itchiness of long grass on your legs during a romp at the beginning of summer.
The music throughout is masterful in its simplicity. While Scattered Trees can clearly pull off a full-band Indie rock sound (“Springtime Proposal,” “I Would Or I Should”), they never hesitate to fall back on the coffee shop ease of Eiesland and his acoustic guitar. Complex guitar harmonies and simple piano accompaniments are not uncommon, but throughout it all the lyrics are centerpiece. Even when the cowboy overdrive of “Hear You Say” kicks in, nothing overpowers the vocals.
In every corner of this album, you’ll find lines to bask in. For example, the “oooohs” holding up the lyrics of “Cigarettes” that make you feel a little happy and a little sad, like looking through a family photo album around the holidays. The traveling blues of “Where We’ve Already Gone,” culminate in “those luggage tags won't tell us who we are.” It’s the idea of taking leaps by not running away: “You are the chance that I'd be childish not to take.”
And of course, we can’t miss the album’s namesake, “Song For My Grandfather,” which through it’s softly-plucked guitar and word-painting brings to mind lyric-driven folk acts like The Civil Wars. It’s a ballad of love and leaving for war with a light-hearted yet contextually heart-tugging chorus: “Out to sea / To a place I won’t call home / My lover’s hands might plead / Oh, a sailor’s life for me.”
This is an album sixteen years in the making, and oh is it worth it. Rich in tone and with ideas deep and wide, it has timeless intimacy not many artists really achieve. Soul Step Records is resurrecting this Scattered Trees sophomore release in a limited run of chocolate brown vinyl. It’s the perfect addition to (or beginning of) your Soul Step collection. Order your copy here!
For fans of: The Shins, This Pine Box, The Decemberists, nostalgia listicles Our take: Intimate but not restrained musicianship; warm, inspired lyrics; like dusting off an old favorite.