Review: Hangnail Phillips – Wit’s End

Originally published in Delusions of Adequacy June 8, 2006

How much is the quality or merit of a record dictated by the intentions of its author or authors?

That’s the question that listeners may find rattling between their ears as they sift through Wit’s End, a peculiar collection of 13 genre-jumping tunes and lo- to mid-fi studio exercises from Newark, Del.-based solo artist Hangnail Phillips.

There’s moments on the self-released disc that are quite good and others that feel somewhat less inspired.

But, the bizarre thing is how much a final verdict on Wit’s End hinges on what you think may or may not have been Phillips’ masterplan for the recording.

Follow my thinking here.

There’s tracks on Philips’ latest outing, captured between 2002 and 2005, that are staples of that familiar icon: the regional rock-n-roll hopeful.

We’re treated to the bluesy, verse/chorus/verse Rickenbacker-rumble of “I Don’t Know What To Do” and “Apathy,” the 60’s-style garage-rock romp of “Angora Sweater,” and the tender acoustic balladry of “Wide Circle,” the chart-ready “Lillian” and the fragile “Just Here Waiting.”

(The emotive “Hangin’ On A String” strongly calls to mind another artist of the same name — Nonesuch Records resident acoustic heartbreaker Sam Phillips.)

The songs are familiar, memorable and engaging, though they have moments that cling tightly — some might say too tightly — to time-worn genre borders and rules.

Phillips proves himself adept as a songwriter and guitarist. (The drum machine, however, can become a bit grating.) His vocals, sometimes marked with a hoarse bite that suggest the experience of an elder statesman, hit their marks. Ultimately, however, this straight-forward reading of the disc offers few surprises.

But Wit’s End, for all its blunt strokes and pronouncements, also throws enough curves into the mix that careful listeners will begin to wonder if Phillips is instead some sort of studio-chameleon or genre-taunting artist in the vein of Howe Gelb or Ariel Pink.

Pay attention and you’ll spot the clues: the occasional foray into electronic-assisted departures (the odd, MIDI-assisted techno-drone of “Thought Boxes”) or the way blunt genre frames (say, the almost goofy rockabilly stop-and-start of “Post Cold War World”) buckle under the weight of peculiar flourishes (in this case, Fox News clips from April 2004). There’s strange little asides (the Celtic tinge of a penny whistle on “Wide Circle;” the synthesizer pumping, cheesy samples and eBow guitar wails of “All Tied Up”) and there’s unexpected shifts in tone (“Lillian” veers into Dixieland but occasionally features ska-style saxophone accompaniment).

The disc closes with the record’s grungy, dirgy title track, complete with littered samples and looped B-horror panic, and a secret offering of barroom blues.

What the hell’s happening here?

As a piece of guerilla-art, a kind of kaleidoscopic, D.I.Y. commentary on genre and how performed emotions are supposed to stay confined to rules and regulations, Wit’s End is an interesting, if ultimately a bit confusing, little document.

As a collection of songs, though, it’s hit and miss — a set of studio-bred solo work that lacks a center or cohesive theme but has moments that will impress listeners if they give it the time to display its colors.

As a combination of the two, it can be fulfilling and worth a listen, especially given its availability online. But, again, follow the directions on the medicine bottle: this may produce more odd looks than pauses of breathless wonder.

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