FRED ABONG – Yellowthroat

Released towards the end of a troubled 2020, at a time when the Coronovirus global pandemic appeared to be at its height, Fred Abong’s first full length album ‘Our Mother of Perpetual Help’ was a suitably moody affair. Comprised of songs largely played from an oddly tuned acoustic guitar and featuring lyrics that captured a genuine emotional fragility, its lo-fi charms felt like a step up from his earlier, hastily recorded EPs.

His 2022 release, ‘Yellowthroat’, takes another sonic leap forward. This is evident right from the opening of ‘Aurora’ with Fred’s acoustic chords sounding much warmer than before. The way the finger picked rhythm dances in a circular way is still pure Abong – as is the performance’s hushed, naturalistic vocal tone – but there are elements featured throughout that often suggest an artist pushing forward. The addition of drones via mellotron sounds and a concession to a few extra vocal overdubs takes Abong’s music into a much more richer place than the ‘Homeless’ EP ever suggested, and a later shift from the main melody into a massive, waltzing time-sig is a far cry from the days when he might’ve chosen to just cut the performance short at the end of the main refrain without any need for repetition. It’s longer, richer, and looking to mine something new, and yet, with its dark lyrical stance and lo-fi centre, it’s still instantly recognisable.

‘Elephant’ takes an even darker turn by placing various downtuned chords – very typical of Abong’s previous works – over a massive drone, and applying a haunting vocal. Exploding into a full band arrangement, it’s a pleasure to hear Fred chopping at an electric guitar whilst Rob Ahlers (also of the Kristin Hersh Trio) drops some heavy, obtrusive beats. In some ways, its a throwback to Fred’s alt-rock past with Throwing Muses; in other ways, it’s heavier and more simplistic approach takes his work somewhere a little different. Eventually dropping back into something of a semi-acoustic persuasion, the track gives extant fans something very familiar as the arrangement employs much of the deep and discordant style that sat at the heart of the Abong’s earlier EPs, but with Fred’s voice now sounding much smoother, it presents something a little moodier, and almost gothic. Unbelievably, ‘Phantom’ takes the listener somewhere even more introspective, where hushed vocals are underscored by soft string-like sounds and guitar chords that sound if they’ve never grown beyond a demo sketch. Unusually for an Abong recording, it’s the lead vocal that’s left to carry the bulk of the melody, and even with a limited range, Fred’s quieter tones do an admirable job here, breathing life into lyrics regarding a breaking relationship. “If these walls won’t fall / Maybe love can be a wrecking ball”, he cries, almost as if only singing to himself for reassurance, whilst slow rhythms pound out a slow beat. These three minutes slowly unwind, almost in a manner that creates a strange tension without any obvious angst. If the previous album hinted at Fred’s growth as a songwriter of almost painful intimacies, this is certainly a performance where he reaches introspective perfection.

For lovers of old gothic infused indie, ‘Passenger Side’ will provide an instant highlight. The intro’s marriage of heavy chords and bright piano occasionally conveys more than a hint of a ‘Disintegration’ era Cure demo, and the way further electronic sounds are used to overlay the main melody with back masked sounds and old tape loops adds an extra layer of beautiful gloom. Between the denser moments, Abong’s in there casting forth some very slow acoustic chords and crooning as if lost within old Red House Painters records, and the combination of the heartfelt and the wantonly dark creates a piece that invites repeated – and very close – listening, at least until the finer points of the performance can be appreciated. Fred has presented songs in the past that often played out like demo sketches for a broken emotional state, but this – allowed to wallow deeply within its own self-reflection – joins ‘Phantom’ as one of his finest recordings to date.

‘Woods’ works a few semi-predictabledark chords, interspersed with a few lighter touches. The finger picked style is immediately familiar, and a breathy vocal calls back to the ‘Homeless’ EP, but like some of this album’s stronger tracks here, there’s a new twist. In this case, that comes from a militaristic drum part and accordion sounds lending a very anti-folk feel. The atonal elements of the accordion won’t suit everyone, but they have the ability to make Fred’s intricate guitar work shine, and with the rhythm eventually providing a climax where bigger beats and occasional bell sounds accentuate the marching band feel, this definitely feels a little different to Abong’s core material, despite being constructed from many of the same moods and tones.

In a proper demo-like throwback,‘Twister’ offers some flat sounding notes as if inspired from a Robert Pollard/Guided By Voices boombox experiment. Set against a mumbling vocal, the music instantly takes shape as classic Abong, but as with at least half of ‘Yellowthroat’s best tracks, it grows into something richer. In this case, a few cleaner guitar tones flesh out the sound, whilst steady rhythms show how the melody could easily be adapted for a full band. During the number’s second half, the juxtaposition of the naturalistic guitar work and droning keys harks back to the heart of an 80s goth sound, but without losing sight of Fred’s greater lo-fi tendencies, creating something more melodic. It’s easy to suspect that this has the makings of a fan favourite, while ‘Glaciers’ adopts a much folkier tone. The quiet heart of this piece allows for a greater insight into Fred’s occasionally off-kilter playing style, and another introspective lyric is a perfect fit for the music in hand. ‘Bubbles’ eventually lends the album something very different with a jagged riff that, although played acoustically, definitely has more of a root within the sharp, arty indie rock of Throwing Muses. It’s great to hear Fred’s flat-ish sound bolstered by harder edges, punchy rhythms and more of a general groove. The mellotron sound and demo quality production still retain plenty that feels like the listener is eavesdropping on a work in progress, though, and lyrics about running from an earthquake – a heavy handed metaphor – accentuate the very dark tone. If you’ve enjoyed and – importantly – understood Abong’s work so far, there’s a lot here to love.

In a final twist, Fred adds a cover tune to this rather quiet and often stripped back work. In choosing the Frank Sinatra classic ‘In The Wee Small Hours’, he ensures the album retains a late night, very introspective feel, but it’s clear that the melodic structures – both musically and lyrically – are very different to his own. Nevertheless, this track sounds very interesting when transposed to Abong’s own distinctive mumble, and he manages to keep it in line with his own work by recording it such a way that the listener can hear his fingers moving across the frets on occasion. In fact, there’s such a natural feel to the recording, you’d actually expect to hear the creaking floorboards from his surroundings and traffic noises to bleed in from outside. He doesn’t quite take it that far, but there’s a real beauty in the recording’s one-take feel.

This album gives Fred’s fans – a world dominated by faces from Kristin Hersh’s brilliantly obsessive following, due to links with Throwing Muses and many shared tours – a lot of what they’ve come to expect from an Abong solo work. At the same time, it sounds deeper, fuller and – without skimping on its important lo-fi potential – sometimes more professional. It isn’t especially any more commercial, but that in itself is a good thing; like Fred’s previous releases, most of ‘Yellowthroat’s overall appeal comes from its sparseness, fragility and introspection. It’s safe to say it doesn’t sell the listener short on that front, and if you’ve taken the musical journey with Abong this far, you’ll certainly find lots to enjoy here.

May 2022