Artists: Never compromise. Just don't.
"The Ever Dying Bristlecone Man," the second album by the New London group Brazen Youth, took two years to finish. Every sound falls exactly where and how its creators — Nicholas Lussier and Charles Dahlke, both 18 — wanted.
"There's not one restriction in the studio," Dahlke says. "That's our goal. We don't want to hear anything in our heads and say, 'We can't do that, because we're not capable of playing it or producing it.' If we want a whale call to turn into an electric guitar solo, we should have the capability to do that."
The Brazen Youth plays folk-leaning indie rock, in the sense that acoustic guitars and harmony vocals act as recurring conditions of the music. But that also seems limiting; instrumentally, there's brass, electric guitar, drums, piano, synths, musical saws and layers of ambient sound. Structurally, too; song forms dissolve and regroup, ideas pop up in new keys and grooves, adopting sudden dynamic shifts, or more gradual ones.
Take "I Call You Into Dreams," a song that lasts nearly 11 minutes, compiled from 178 tracks ("that's after I consolidated them to make it easier for mastering," Dahlke says) and performed by 200 different instruments.
It starts with rain, then slowly turns to static from an old radio. A backward guitar track explodes in deep space. There's light finger-picking (five acoustic guitars playing the same figure), then Lussier's voice, an instrument capable of profound beauty, enters. Like other Brazen Youth songs, "I Call You Into Dreams" is an ideal marriage of song and "execution," a word both men use frequently.
"We think half of a song is its structure, its writing, and so on, but half of it is also its execution," Lussier says. "A really good song can be incredible with proper execution. It's something as small as timbre, the type of guitar you use."
"The tone of the guitar, how a guitar is miked," Dahlke adds. "Are we going to use two mics or three mics? Are we going to mic Nick's hand going up and down the fretboard as he plays?"
Dahlke and Lussier met as kids. In eighth grade, they played in a Red Hot Chili Peppers tribute band, mixing in early original songs. Later, as the Company, they composed Lumineers-inspired folk-rock.
"Bristlecone Man" is the duo's second LP as the Brazen Youth. "New Life," a debut album with fewer sonic details, came out in 2014, when the two men were only 16; "Alright" won a Critic's Award for Song of the Year at the 2015 Whalie Awards, a yearly celebration of local talent held in New London.
"We just wanted to see if we were capable of doing certain things," Lussier says. "We knew what it should sound like in our heads, but we didn't know how to create that sound."
The Brazen Youth's studio is on Ashlawn Farm in Lyme, where Dahlke grew up. Ray Harding, a state senator (and Dahlke's great-grandfather), bought the property in 1909; it was passed down to his son, Sam Harding, and later to Sam's nephew, Chip Dahlke (Charlie's father), in 1996. Charlie's mother, Carol, operated Ashlawn Farm Coffee, a cafe and roastery, on the property, before moving the business to Old Saybrook.
Like the farm and its structures, there are long shadows in the music: exposed beams, hidden doors, cracked walls, crawl spaces, maybe a few wandering spirits. They write about big issues; "Emma" is about a friend who passed away from cancer ("I'm not dead / I'm just on medication"). On "Let Us Be Alone Again," where tapestries of voices yield to anthemic, synth-pop optimism and spoken-word poetry, they struggle with populism and the devaluation of art:
They broke my jukebox my music has turned into ash
They took the writings, the drawings, the clothes off my back
They left us crawling astray
We all bowed down to a man in a toupee
You're not my leader, no I don't belong here
The opening song, "human beings are the only creatures capable of dehydrating with a glass of water in front of them" (lowercase letters intended), is about "humanity's timeless ability to be stubborn, to be caught up in its own head," Lussier says.
The last track, an instrumental piano piece, is called "plio." Neither musician knows why.
"We were trying to make an album that didn't reference one specific time frame, but rather referenced all of humanity," Dahlke says. "We didn't want to make an album that sounded like 2016."
"It's Such a Beautiful Day," an animated feature by Don Hertzfeldt, inspired the concept.
"At the very end of that movie, it seems like Bill [the main character] is going to die, but he just ends up living on and on," Lussier says. "It's probably the most beautiful thing either of us had ever witnessed. We thought: What if we made something beautiful about someone who lives and dies and is reincarnated and remembers his past lives?"
Lussier and Dahlke recorded "Bristlecone Man" using Ableton software, various interfaces, an AKG 420 condenser and other microphones. There's a humidity-controlled, soundproofed room for recording vocals (mostly Lussier's; Dahlke sings lead on "Cry for the Aliens"), drums, acoustic guitars and anything else. Along the way, they compiled lists (Song X is 95 percent done, Song Y is 80 percent done) and assigned letter grades (A, B+, D).
"There's a dichotomy between lo-fidelity and hi-fidelity music," Lussier says. "Lo-fidelity music is authentic and really expressive, and hi-fidelity music is listenable. I think we're trying to fuse those together, to find a nice balance."
"Air is Water," one of the more accessible songs on "Bristlecone Man" (the melody reminds me of "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross," from Sufjan Stevens' recent "Carrie and Lowell"), required more than 100 vocal takes.
"There would be nights when I did them 30 times, and then I would finally convince myself that there was a take that I liked," Lussier says. "Then I'd come back a week later and think it was sh*t."
"When we were recording Nick's vocals, we kept changing the mics," Dahlke says. "We were using a Bluebird, all these nice mics, but at the end we were desperate to experiment with anything. We used a $99 Shure SM57, the worst mic we have. It blended nicely. We got lucky."
The Brazen Youth doesn't have any live shows booked for 2017 yet. Lussier is enrolled at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studies voice and composition. Dahlke is taking a year off before pursuing college. Lussier's songwriting is getting more complex. Dahlke is simplifying.
"Our minds developed together," Lussier says. "I don't know how else to say it. But now our songs are diverging a little bit more, because we have different influences. Being at Berklee has made me aware of structured music, and made me dislike structured music. Now I'm trying to be as unstructured as possible."
"What I'm writing right now will keep us tied to our roots, and what Nick's writing will keep up moving forward," Dahlke says.
Editor's note: Press Play is a column exploring the underground musicians of Connecticut. If you have new music to share, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.