Empty Horses (2020)
Over the course of seven solo albums and a side project (Eyesinweasel), Tobin Sprout has made a few stylistic shifts and turns. However, for the most part, he has adhered to the lo-fi aesthetic he and fellow bandmate Robert Pollard pioneered in the 90s with indie rock stalwart Guided By Voices – short, catchy pop nuggets typically buried under layers of charming distortion and hiss. The majority of songs he recorded were done in the home studio above the garage that he built when he left GBV and moved to Leland, Michigan to raise a family and pursue his other passion, photo-realistic painting. As the previous write-up references, Sprout was so committed to being the torchbearer of that lo-fi pop aesthetic that Pitchfork dubbed him the “AC/DC of lo-fi rock,” a dig at how much his songs sounded the same over the course of several decades. Well, that all changes on Empty Horses. Sprout completely switches course on this album, eliminating the tape hiss, static and distortion, and replacing it with more professional-sounding, crisp production. That high-pitched voice that carries such a soft, innocent feeling takes a dip into a lower range on the vocal spectrum as well. And while Tobin’s songs tend to feature more pop or psychedelic arrangements, the prominent styles on Empty Horses are country, folk and gospel. Using God and the Civil War as inspiration, Sprout throws a significant change-up at his fans on this album. The official Release Notes provide some valuable context:
This record was recorded both at Tobin’s home studio and Goon Lagoon Studio in Lansing, MI and released by the U.K.-based Fire Records. The Vermillion brothers return on bass and drums and Tommy Schichtel plays guitar. Tobin also enlisted Drew Howard to play pedal steel on a couple tracks. Needless to say, this is not your typical Tobin Sprout album. The cover art is an oil-on-canvas painting of an old Red Cross pin done by Tobin. With themes of The Civil War and God playing a central role on Empty Horses, there is a continuation of that awareness of one’s own mortality which surfaced of 2017’s The Universe and Me. In reflecting on the writing and recording of Empty Horses, Tobin has the following to say, “It took about two years to get it finished. I actually wrote two albums at the same time, and when I went to the record company and talked to the guys in the band, they all thought that this sounded like two albums. So, we kind of stripped it down. I really liked the Americana style of it. I had written “Antietam” about 10 years ago. There was a single that I just sold out of the house, but I didn’t really give it the attention that it needed. It was the last one that I put on the album. It fit perfectly with what the album had become. “On Golden River,” there’s a lot of history, a lot of Civil War references and just a lot of American history. It was an album I’d always wanted to make. I always admired other people that did that sort of work. I don’t think I intended to go this way, but it just became this album, this sort of warped into this album, Empty Horses. So, I’m really happy with it. I want to keep going in that direction, maybe a little more to the rock side, but it opened a lot of new doors for me as far as writing.”Artist, illustrator, writer and lo-fi innovator, Tobin Sprout was the super-productive partner of Robert Pollard in the legendary Guided By Voices. The gifted songwriter returns with a pensive, expansive part autobiographical new album 'Empty Horses'. Here he's part Townes Van Zandt, part John Prine, part Robbie Robertson at his retrospective best.
The album is a meticulously observed study of America and Americana (not the music, but the state of mind). An alternative American Songbook, if you will, a collection of laments to simpler times and the struggle for what's right, peppered with an examination of faith and the search for a sense of justice. Close up and personal, 'Empty Horses' is a poignant carefully etched experience, a rolling journey in modern times, nodding back to tradition, a personal snapshot filled with honesty.
1. Wings Prelude – The opening piano chord reminds me of some of the haunting songs on Magnolia Electric Co.’s fantastic Sojourner. Tobin’s voice comes in and sounds deeper and more weathered than ever before. The arrangement isn’t too far outside his typical wheelhouse, but the production and pitch of his voice indicate that the listener is in for something different. This sparse, piano ballad accomplishes a lot setting the tone in a mere minute and twenty-six seconds. “Hey now, I’ve called your bluff.” (7)
2. The Return – Well, this is certainly different. Sprout crafts a country-tinged, folk-gospel song with the crisp, acoustic guitar playing by Tommy Schichtel evoking John Prine. Tobin’s vocals right up front in the mix and super clean. His daughter, Martha, providing some Carter Family-like harmonizing vocals. “Coming down the old highway, that’s where I saw them.” (6)
3. Breaking Down – After a distant, Neil Young-like distorted guitar announces this track, Sprout goes all in with the country arrangement, bringing in Drew Howard to supply some fantastic, melancholic pedal steel. Big-time Robbie Robertson/Levon Helm vibes on this sweeping, atmospheric song, with double-tracked vocals used to great effect. Great bridge that features some ghost-like “Ooooooo’s” There’s a road that’s been building in my head.” (8)
4. On Golden Rivers – Song title brings to mind the 1981 Academy Award-nominated film, On Golden Pond. Tobin sings in a hushed, but clear voice as Schichtel and the Vermillion brothers do their best Stray Gators impersonation, with Sprout adding some piano and Hammond B3 to the mix. This sounds like a better version of what Jack Nitzsche attempted to add with those heavy-handed production additions to Neil Young’s work (see “A Man Needs a Maid”). Several Civil War references scattered throughout. “It stinks to high heaven.” (8)
5. The Man I Used to Know – Heavily-reverbed guitars dominate this track as the rhythm section provides that Crazy Horse-like, dusty gallop. Song reminds me of the reverbed Old West-styled material from Neil Young’s 1994 record, Sleeps with Angels. “It’s become like a crossroad puzzle.” (7)
6. Every Sweet Soul – This song shares a very similar sound and feel as track two, “The Return.” I am not used to hearing this kind of clean production on a Tobin Sprout album. “Empty rooms may try to break you.” (6)
7. Empty Horses – The title track sounds very similar to many of the songs Johnny Cash cut with Rick Rubin on those excellent American Recordings albums. Tobin dips way down in his vocal range as he conjures the ghost of Johnny Cash. “And left me in the gutter for others to see.” (6.5)
8. Antietam – Tobin resurrects a Civil War-themed single he self-released ten years ago when he began his short-lived label, Moonflower Records. As he states in a 2020 interview with Aquarium Drunkard, “I had written “Antietam” about 10 years ago. There was a single that I just sold out of the house, but I didn’t really give it the attention that it needed. It was the last one that I put on the album. It fit perfectly with what the album had become.” Special props to the percussion that mimics the sound of hooves hitting the paved surface. “The children played to the bells of Sunday.” (8)
9. All in My Sleep – Sprout and the band belt it out on this Crazy Horse-styled country rocker, complete with fuzzy, distorted guitar blasts. After a raucous start, the song transitions into a meandering piano excursion, accompanied by more sublime pedal steel. Tobin delivers on this sprawling, ambitious track. “In my sleep, I wake up to dream and carry on my way.” (9)
10. No Shame – The album concludes in a similar space where it began, with a sparse, somber piano track. This one is heavy on the spiritual side as Tobin pours a ton of emotion into this vocal performance. “Jesus has gone to heaven, but I can’t begin to fly away from here.” (5)