When it comes to Chris Barth's ambitious first solo album, reach may exceed artistic grasp on the whole. But then, rarely has that been more of an arguable proposition than it is here, and rarely has it seemed less a criticism. The concept and its execution certainly has its pretentious aspects, and yet Loving off the Land is a bold piece pulled off with vibrancy and vision. Even in its least-successful moments the album is always a curious, fascinating piece of music. Even more frequently, however, it is a startling thing to behold, an utterly strange and captivating creation that is not remotely like anything else in either the mainstream or independent worlds of pop. In fact, more than a Y2K vanity project by the leader of a local college band, Loving off the Land might appropriately be aligned with the sort of weird, experimental projects tossed off by the eccentric psychedelic hermits (Syd Barrett, Big Boy Pete, Julian Cope, E, Mark Linkous) of pop's past and present, artists for whom it has taken either time or a healthy body of work or both to gain their due posterity. Barth had the luxury of funneling all his oddest composing predilections into this project, as his full-time gig is with band the Impossible Shapes. The central conceit was to use single notes to suggest rather than actually create melodies and then to develop them through intricate arrangements. In addition, the music is based on a thematic concept -- not unlike the whimsical fairy stories of progressive rock -- and broken up into two nebulous but clearly delineated sections. It is not necessary, however, to follow the story entirely in order to enjoy the enchantments of the songs (or "chapters") themselves. Essentially with only his own two hands, Barth created a piece that defies easy classification or easy listening. Full of atypical song structures, novel instrumental textures, and melodies that recall folk or world forms more often than pop or rock ones, this is a strange, beautiful album.
Loving off the Land: A Story in Two Parts Review
by Stanton Swihart