I recall the first time I heard Stephen Steinbrink. I caught the final few songs of his set at one of What The Heck Fest’s final years. The song was “Breath of Fire” off his 2009 LP Ugly Unknowns. Such a pleasant, poppy sound: I thought this a little strange coming from someone who so fit in with the lo-fi weirdness of the Anacortes crowd.
Steinbrink returned late last month with his latest, a new LP called Arranged Waves. It features much of the same — joyous pop-driven melodies that border on playful fronted by vocals that possess a hint of underlying sadness delivered in a relaxing, laid back manner.
Arranged Waves opens with “Now You See Everything”, a track on par with the catchy nature of “Breath of Fire”. Following it is the simple, finger-plucked “Brand New Manic Brain Holder” in which Steinbrink strips away all instrumentation with exception of his acoustic guitar throughout the majority of the song.
Arranged Waves was written while Steinbrink toured as a solo performer for most of the last 12 months, composed in static intervals in Greyhounds, Toyota minivans, and European trains.
These words open the release notes for Arranged Waves on Stephen Steinbrink’s website. Recorded in his Olympia, WA-based home studio, you hear cross-influence with the artists who make up many of these recordings — Eli Moore, Ashley Eriksson and Andrew Dorsett of Whidbey Island/Olympia band LAKE.
Throughout Arranged Waves, Stephen Steinbrink will remind you that true underground pop continues to be a mainstay in both the Anacortes and Olympia communities. His light yet distinct falsetto stands out as much as his appearance — those simple circular glasses that scream of book-learning and nerdism. Delve into his lyrics and you’ll find a clever man who knows his way around the written word:
Album closer “Sand Mandalas” is a reconciliation of meaninglessness: “It feels impossible to think the thought / that I’m doomed to make my meaning / in the arbitrary aether”. These songs are a continued attempt to describe moments of banality in the context of a pop song without manipulation of their inherent romance.
And Arranged Waves is clear testament that Steinbrink is well-versed in songcraft as well. Despite their seemingly simple nature, there are deft musical complexities throughout the album that are easy to ignore on first listen. But the further you dig, the more you come to realize how brilliance within each song.
Listen to the album below. In addition to the aforementioned tracks, further highlights include “Synesthetic Ephemera” and “It’s So Pretty What You Did For Me”.