A record as disarmingly personal as I'm This Tall City feels like a rare and special creature. "Personal" might be a little misleading. There's no indication that it's lyrically autobiographical in any sense, and it's not particularly narrative-driven for the most part. Musically, though, the intimate and varied soundscapes that layer the work's nine songs feel like a trip down the rabbit hole into the strange and fascinating musical psyches of its creators, The Window Twins.
This is the first record as the Twins for the duo of Tim Cohen and Jon Bernson, but the two musicians are well established in the San Francisco Bay Area music scene through other excellent projects. Cohen's band Black Fiction created a simply stunning collection of fractured psych-pop in 2006's Ghost Ride, and his newest band The Fresh and Onlys has been generating significant local buzz and has a number of upcoming releases. Bernson is the mind behind Ray's Vast Basement, whose third album -- 2007's Starvation Under Orange Trees -- was a song-cycle of layered folk-rock inspired by (and often from the perspectives of) John Steinbeck characters.
In other words, there's a lot of talent and creativity between the two of them, but don't make my initial mistake and expect a mix of Cohen and Bernson's other interests. There are familiar moments from past recordings -- Tim's haunting falsetto emerges throughout, and folkier tunes like "Dig a Well" and "Joey Conductor" have traces of Ray's Vast Basement in them -- but the Twins appear equally interested in exploring new styles, particularly incorporating elements of experimental hip-hop and improvisational pastiche into more traditional psych, folk and rock songs. The hip-hop feel, found in the dusty drum loops and grooves, reminds me of some of the work released on the Anticon label, and I note that Bernson recently picked Odd Nosdam's Pretty Swell Explode as his favorite record of 2008 in an article for TheBayBridged.com. The pastiche feel is omnipresent, as seemingly found sounds and atmospherics give the album a hazy, almost mystical feel.
Between the variety of mysterious sounds and lyrics rich in strange imagery, there's a feeling on the first couple of listens to I'm This Tall City that almost anything can happen. That level of boundless imagination can cut both ways: it makes for a fascinating trip, but can initially seem a little formless. Thankfully, once you accept the few rules of the Window Twins' universe, the great psych-folk songs at the album's core emerge through the haze. It's a challenging and fascinating work that ultimately bears rich rewards.