JL Stiles – House of Murmurs (2013)

JL Stiles comes out of a blues-playing tradition, but he moves far afield of anything so straight-forward on House of Murmurs, a layered, connective album that can’t be anchored to any one specific genre.

The shambolic love song “Spring Light of Day,” for instance, features a quivery vocal from the San Franciscan that has as much to do with Eddie Vedder’s most emotional moments as it does the shot-gun shack balladry of Ted Hawkins. “Frostbite Fails” unfolds with a spacious ambiance, echoing with a cerulean, Eno-esque lonesomeness. “All In Day,” with its boozy horns and smacking cadence, offers a found-art thrill not unlike discovering an previously unheard old rockabilly 45. “Beneath the Light” skips along with a post-punk propulsion, but also features a doubled vocal reminiscent of Jefferson Airplane’s classic late-1960s Bay Area sides.

Quite frankly there’s no hole — square, round or otherwise — in which to jam this peg. That surrounds House of Murmurs with a fizzy sense of discovery, as Stiles tries on genre hats, one after another, and then quickly discards them. Somehow, and this is the album’s true strength, he seems just as at home in one as he does any other.

“Song Beside My Grave,” despite a title straight out of the doomy Robert Johnson songbook, instead hews more to the sad resignation of early Dylan. “Afterthought” is a veritable blender full of sounds — a rumbling polyrhythm, a sunset guitar, a ruminative lyric, a bull-fighter’s trumpet. Meanwhile, “Movin’” skitters along like an up-country front-porch picking session.

“Leaf in the Snow” might be the closest that House of Murmurs gets to a blues, but even there Stiles slips into a tumbling cadence, dragging the song further and further down in this twilight poignancy. As with everything else here, it’s utterly enveloping.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has also explored music for publications like USA Today, Gannett News Service, All About Jazz and Popdose for nearly 30 years. Honored as newspaper columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section that was named Top 10 in the nation by the AP in 2006. Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.