Charleston songwriter Joel T. Hamilton's latest project Mechanical River is a quirky one-man show, and his 10-song debut album is in stark contrast to the electric guitar-driven rock Hamilton was doing a few years ago with the Working Title.
Fortunately, Astral Castle is a sophisticated achievement that finds him reconnecting with his love for lo-fi guitar, percussion, and hazy atmospherics. As Mechanical River, Hamilton handles a homemade cigar-box guitar, a keyboard on an ironing board, a helmet fitted with a microphone, and a lonely bass drum underneath it all.
Astral Castle follows 2010's Feels Like We're Gonna Win, another eclectic collection on which Hamilton sang and played most of the instruments himself with guest musicians and vocalists from the Shrimp Records family chiming in. The echo on Feels Like We're Gonna Win is even more prevalent on Astral Castle. The primitive grittiness of the music resembles the sounds on Hamilton's 2008 solo debut Officina, too.
Many of the songs sound as if they were recorded with a cheap microphone from a room down the hallway. Hamilton's emotive croon floats over the reverb-laden ukulele-esque sounds of his guitar.
"Tourniquet" opens the collection with a mechanical rhythm and an arpeggiated guitar. "Gimme Me" sounds like a funky surf-rock ballad, starting with a light and strummy feel and suddenly veering into a scratchy Casio drum-beat jam. The weirdly bluesy "Pomelos" grooves at a more casual pace with falsetto/bass vocals and faux strings in the chorus.
Lyrically, it seems like Astral Castle is inspired by spiritual turmoil and triumph, as well as romantic misadventures. At his heaviest, Hamilton sings with rich tones about eternal afterlife. There are a few trippy Syd Barrett moments as well. The full-fingered organ chords of the slow-moving "Offer" create a bizarre, droning, church-like march while he asks, "Oh, my God, what do I offer?" Other songs have lighter moments of whimsy. The cartoonish keyboard and percussion patterns of "Never Loved" sound silly, but Hamilton's earnest singing anchors the song. The drowsy/misty "By Fathers" and "Dream" sway with casual waltz rhythms. The synthy instrumental "Ghost Crab" scampers to with an exotic hook on the Casio. With computer drum beats and keyboard riffs, "Pentagrate" sounds like early Devo demos, but only if Mark Mothersbaugh and company had grown up in Appalachia with trashier gear on hand.
It's hard to say whether he's becoming a mad genius or a cantankerous curiosity. Either way, it's a mesmerizing listen. (facebook.com/mechanicalriver)
Mechanical River shares the stage with Timbre at the Circular Congregational Church at 8 p.m. on Sat. July 21. Admission is $10 ($7 for students).