While Davenport-based experimental folk artist and singer/songwriter Sammerson Bridge foregrounds his new album Happy Day with an air of self-deprecation and presents the project as a tossed-off lark, from the crude photo collage on its album cover to the tongue-in-cheek verbal greeting he plants at the beginning of the first track (“this is my new album”), these appear to be little more than defense mechanisms to downplay the fact that the dude makes great music.
Bridge’s practice couples a knack for memorable melodies and guitar arrangements with a sophisticated, layered production style that carefully balances contrasting fidelities and finds room for all sorts of little details in the mix aside from the central guitar and vocal elements. In short, he really earns that “experimental” tag that appears on his Bandcamp page – moving far beyond the realm of the rock band that happens to have a synth part in one track and then decides that they’re experimental now. On Happy Day, Bridge tinkers with bizarro instrumentation decisions, specifically spatializes and pans sounds across the stereo spread, and incorporates washes of found sound and field recording into traditional sound structures. He also plays a mean bass guitar. The man is, as they say, on one. I love it.
The opening track “Good Morning Baby Bo” kicks things off with a perfect vibe that serves as a thesis for the album. Overtop of the central chord progression introduced via chiming, texturally crackly (in a great way) guitar and a chubby bassline filtered so it takes up just the right amount of space in the mix while still bumping, Bridge layers in field recordings of birds chirping, hard-panned hand percussion, and a muffled but still propulsive drum track. The guitar tone here channels that half-remembered '60s psych tonal palette that Bibio explored on “Lovers Carvings” from his 2009 album Ambivalence Avenue, before that sort of jangly, homespun guitar tone started popping up again along the pop <-> psych rock spectrum, perhaps best exemplified by Tame Impala.
But I digress. Sammerson Bridge pulls off this guitar tone with aplomb, in a way that feels more indebted to “freak folk” staples such as Akron/Family or Devendra Banhart than any of the “whoa trippy mannnn” psych music that has ascended over the last 10 years. “Good Morning Baby Bo” doesn’t really have a song structure as much as that central progression that Bridge loops while he adds and subtracts more elements from the mix. The song’s loose, almost dreamlike quality is even more effective than if he just had offered up a standard verse-chorus-verse type affair. I love the flutes on this track. Or maybe they’re recorders? Or maybe they’re synth VST voices? Whatever they are, they hit at the right moments to swell the energy up from the guitar and vocal passages into slightly more proggy territory, like King Crimson’s “I Talk To The Wind” if it were performed in an Iowa backyard and there was no fire witch there trying to capture you and eat your soul.
Album highlight “Noon + Rain” captures many sides of Bridge’s craft in one five-minute package. The intro presents us with a faint field recording of rain pattering on the ground before a hot (gain-wise) fiddle bursts in, spiraling through a plaintive yet energetic country stomp type melody – a flash of the mighty Henry Flynt, perhaps? But the fiddle is only the focus for one shake of a lamb’s tail before the track crumbles and reforms into a moody, even jazzy little number animated by languid electric keyboard chords and another bumping, active bassline. Listen with headphones on, not just pumping out of your phone or laptop speakers or whatever, to really get not only the instrumental details that Bridge has worked into this piece, but just as importantly to catch his attention to spatialization and layered production. The mix feels cavernous and takes advantage of every little nook in the stereo field, from the short missives of electric guitar and melodica that float in and out of the corners, to the shifting location of the rain field recording, all of which orbit that rock-solid bassline planted at the center, which Bridge moves from its main couple-bar looped phrase into a nice walking line that would fit nicely in the performance of a jazz standard. An instrumental track, “Noon + Rain” still conveys Bridge’s personality and the low-key expertise with which he approaches composition and production. I say “low-key” because he doesn’t seem like the type of dude who takes himself too seriously. I bet when his friends try to tell him, “Dude, this album is so great! How did you do this?”, he brushes it off like, “Oh that old thing? I don’t know, I just kind of whipped it together.” I don’t know Sammerson Bridge but that’s the vibe that his music gives off. And I am here to say, “Dude, this album is so great!”
Perhaps more than any other touchstone, Happy Day hits on a strain of whimsical yet sophisticated and surprisingly deep folk/pop experimentalism that recalls the work of Shugo Tokumaru. Both Tokumaru and Bridge love their woodwinds, their melodicas, and their textured and effected guitar lines, and both know how to elevate what could be seen as a dinky little folk ditty into something that emotionally resonates – revealing their deliberation when it comes to how they piece their music together. Tokumaru albums such as Exit and Port Entropy feel like precursors to Happy Day for all these reasons, though Tokumaru skirts closer to the territories of dextrous math rock and widescreen twee-pop, while Bridge remains more firmly engrained in country and folk.
That’s not to say that everything that Bridge presents here falls along those lines. Album closer “A Small Gift for the Flower Giant,” which Bridge seems to have released as a standalone mini-EP a couple weeks before Happy Day hit Bandcamp, stands as the album’s most combinatory and fast-moving track. Bridge finds room for wisps of dreamy e-piano, atonal bursts of string cacophony, a spoken word passage extolling the virtues of gratitude that may or may not be his own voice, a syncopated 808 drum beat, and washes of lovely acoustic guitar strumming. Once the song hits its stride with the introduction of the guitar, Bridge once again lets the song structure melt away in favor of repetition that subtly gains layers as time moves on. We hear inklings of synth creeping somewhere in the mix, but they never take over. We get more layers of guitar but they all fuse together into a central wall that keeps building momentum. By the time Bridge pops back in with a little outro message – “I must go now. Thanks again. I guess it’s time to go make that movie.” – not only am I sad to see the album end, but I look forward to checking out the dude’s movie whenever he finishes it. Given how much of a cinematic sense of structure, detail, and texture appear in his tunes, I’m sure that movie will be something to behold.