By Ian S. Port
By Tony Ware
By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
In April 2010, Sub Pop — the revered Seattle indie label once home to Nirvana — announced that it had signed the Bay Area band Papercuts. The news came as something of a surprise to observers of the local scene: Although Sub Pop is no longer regarded as the singular force it was in the early '90s, its name still carries considerable cachet, and its roster includes such premier acts as dream-pop duo Beach House, Americana leaders Fleet Foxes, and the radical L.A. punk group No Age. Papercuts, on the other hand, is the project of rather mopey thirtysomething Jason Quever, who by then had written, recorded, and produced three albums of mostly midtempo indie-pop in his San Francisco living room. His songs were sweetly mournful and at times catchy, suffused with lush organs and wistful, whiney vocals. His then-current album, You Can Have What You Want, contained some beautiful moments and got warm reviews. But it was hard to see how Papercuts' music would stand up to that of its new labelmates — and why, out of a thriving Bay Area scene, Sub Pop had picked this band to sign.
A year later, it's become clear what the label folks were thinking. On Papercuts' Sub Pop debut, Fading Parade, Quever's vision of atmospheric, world-weary indie-pop is expanded to a stunning degree. Not only is it by far the best thing Papercuts has yet recorded, but the album actually puts the band within striking distance of Beach House — an outfit that has set the contemporary standard for burying its grandly downbeat songs beneath massive curtains of reverb. But whereas Beach House's 2010 triumph, Teen Dream, seems to obsess over moving as slowly as possible, Fading Parade sees Papercuts exploring different moods and speeds. Quever's dragging, piano-laden tearjerkers are still there, of course, but album opener "Do You Wanna Know" is a delightfully uptempo bit of twee flirtation, complete with a chorus that seems to spiral ever skyward. "Marie Says You've Changed" races forward over unsettling piano arpeggios, as Quever reflects on the strangeness of returning home after a long time away. None of these 10 songs really rocks — that's the idea — but they never feel stuck in a rut, either.
These advances did not happen by accident. While Fading Parade was partially recorded at home, Quever and his touring band members (in a break with past habits, he's been playing with the same three musicians for more than two years) also worked in a Sacramento studio called the Hangar. It's a big former warehouse — Quever compared the room to the size of Great American Music Hall — because Papercuts wanted a big sound. To help with that, the band hired producer Thom Monahan, who has worked with Vetiver, Beachwood Sparks, and Devendra Banhart — and who, Quever says, was especially skilled in the scale of sound he wanted. Hiring a producer was a dramatic but welcome change for Papercuts' leader, who was used to recording at home alone. "It was a relief," he says. Monahan's skilled hand let him focus on writing and performing, unquestionably helping the project. "You can't have the same perspective when it's your own thing," Quever says of producing records. "You need someone else to tell you what was going on."
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According to Quever's wishes, Monahan filled out Fading Parade with an epic amount of atmosphere, so much that it can be hard to tell whether the instrument you're hearing is a guitar, organ, piano, cello, or something else entirely. The melodies carry this record, not the individual instruments, and Quever made sure that the album doesn't sacrifice songcraft for ambience. "The one piece of criticism that I did take to heart was that I didn't want everything to be the same sort of lazy, middle-of-the-road ... " He trails off and picks up again: "People always say, 'Oh, it sounds all California,' and I didn't know what that meant. I just started to realize it means really laid-back, so I think we made some effort to mix it up."
Papercuts is still a mostly sad, slow, and dramatic band, and it's hard to imagine that changing. Quever, now 35, started writing and recording music after losing his parents: When he was 14, his mother died of a brain tumor; after that, he says, his father "kinda disappeared and then died a few years later. I don't really know why." Music became a way for him to get through the trauma: "That was just a thing I had to do to make it feel like I had something, some reason to be alive." But it's writing and recording his own songs that Quever finds therapeutic, not listening to them. "You'll never really enjoy listening to it, but it's really fun to have the things to work on," he says. "You'll never feel like, 'I did this perfectly.'"
To be sure, Fading Parade isn't perfect — it's at its best during the first three songs and the last four, and sags a bit in the middle. Quever's voice itself at times feels like a tiny whisper amidst a glittery onslaught of sound (though that's not always a bad thing). But Papercuts' fourth album is a gorgeous testament to Quever's songwriting skill and his band's sonic vision. After this, no one should wonder why Papercuts is on a label like Sub Pop.