Cloudland Canyon, authors of the terrific new experimental rock album Fin Eaves, is a hard-to-define outfit co-founded by Kip Ulhorn, a Memphis native who returned to the city in 2006 after time spent in Knoxville and New York City.
Ulhorn's primary musical concern while in New York was as co-founder and guitarist for Panthers, a post-hardcore band reminiscent, at times, of MC5, Drive Like Jehu, Refused, and Gang of Four. Prior to Panthers, while attending UT-Knoxville, Ulhorn founded the Red Scare, one of the more highly respected and forward-thinking of '90s hardcore bands. (Panthers was formed when ex-members of the Red Scare joined ex-members of the likeminded and also revered Orchid.)
Right around the time Panthers had become one of Vice Records' next great hopes, Ulhorn hooked up with a German multi-instrumentalist named Simon Wojan and began exercising an interest in music that wouldn't work in Panthers, to say the least. The newly formed duo, Cloudland Canyon, drew inspiration from ambient and minimalist pioneers of the '70s like Brian Eno, Terry Riley, and bands that fell under the Krautrock umbrella, such as Neu!, early Kraftwerk, and Popul Vuh. With nods to contemporary "free-rock," noise, and improvisational underground bands such as the Dead C, Sun City Girls, and Black Dice, Cloudland Canyon became a refreshing escape from the "back-to-rock" and "post-post-punk" campaigns that were burning hot and quick on the early-'00s New York indie scene.
Not long after Ulhorn returned to Memphis, Cloudland Canyon released its second full-length LP, Lie in Light, on Kranky Records, and then a couple of split 12" EPs (with the bands Lichens and Mystical Beast). Ulhorn also made a soft psych-pop album with his wife, Kelly, under the name Eden Express, which was released shortly after Lie in Light on the Holy Mountain label. Then Ulhorn started working on the batch of songs that were to be the second Eden Express album. But the next couple of years would see these songs evolving into something that eclipsed anything Ulhorn had previously written.
"I started working on it in September of '08, and at first, it was going to be a solo record but one done under a name that never came to fruition," Ulhorn says, "because at that point, I was operating under the rule that Simon [Wojan] had to be involved if it was going to be a Cloudland Canyon record."
Wojan parted ways with Cloudland to focus on King Khan & the Shrines, and Kranky suggested that the Cloudland moniker be retained to make use of name recognition. Cloudland Canyon is now Ulhorn and his wife as the core, with a rotating cast of support musicians. Bassist Aaron Worcester and guitarist Scott Patterson (of the Oscars) are the latest members, having accompanied Ulhorn for a month or two now.
Cloudland Canyon was personally asked by Interpol to open several shows in and around New York, though the "secret" nature of the gigs was never made known to Cloudland or their publicist. "About five minutes after we put the dates up, we were contacted and told to remove them," Ulhorn says. Basically a show filled with bloggers and the sporadic fan who found a way to wrangle a ticket, it was mired by technical difficulties for Cloudland Canyon. But there was Fin Eaves to offset the online complaints ... and offset it did.
Fin Eaves, released last month, has enjoyed a fair amount of positive attention from the blogging community (negative attention would be no attention at all), and a good amount of the praise seems to emanate from a certain type of blogger: the ones with a clue. The urge to make note of the band's sonic comparisons or to influence-spot are both rendered nearly impossible in this world. Fin Eaves is a record that could conceivably launch a herd of imitators.
The album's vocals are designed to be yet another layer, another instrument, not as the communicator of an intelligible sentiment, which will no doubt create a challenge for those accustomed to the styles of Girls, Best Coast, or Washed Out, bands that treat the first-wave shoegaze and noise-pop of yesteryear like one big karaoke machine, cherry-picking then emulating each and every quality of the style but refusing to touch the (usually) buried vocals with a 50-foot stick.
Within the context of Memphis exports, Fin Eaves stands alone sonically, but that, in and of itself, means nothing. Only a fool would believe "unique" to be synonymous with "good." I could self-release "field recordings" of myself reading aloud from an issue of Cat Fancy and it would sound like nothing else and attract an audience of zero. But Fin Eaves goes pretty far toward achieving what was previously thought to be impossible within the context of noise-pop. It scoots the form forward with an aural presentation that manages to be peerless and engaging at the same time.