A lot of Forever Sparrow, Color Cassette’s first full-length album, reflects the band’s origins: musician Jason Corder recording his guitar on a four track at home in Lexington, Ky. Slow, soft picking is backed by distant sounding vocals, with a quiet current of lo-fi hissing snaking in and out. Somewhere along the way, Corder changed his mind and brought on more than a dozen other musicians to create a concept album centered on a story that makes slightly more sense than whatever the Decemberists are singing about on The Hazards of Love. The musicians add everything from strings to recorded birdcalls, and while none of it ever adds up to the opus Color Cassette seems to have aimed for, Forever Sparrow is a lush album that pulls you into its creepy little world with a kind of innocent charm.
The concept of this particular concept album is the story of a little boy who gets lost in a magic forest, is transformed into a sparrow, and decides to live there forever. Fair enough. Musically, Forever Sparrow is electronica for the Audubon Society. Amidst melodica, drum machines and computeristic bleeps and beeps, there are the sounds of birds whistling and water sloshing. Several of the songs are structured like a lazy river, meandering slowly, stretching like an elastic band, quickening with a rush of cymbals and feedback, and then fading out again on a slow acoustic strum.
The album opens with “Black Nest Waters,” which is all home recording intimacy and haunting, harmonizing asexual vocals that are reminiscent of an anemic Bon Iver. The song has a beckoning quality, and the lyrics ask to the listener to “Please hold my hand as we cross into this mess that you’ve made / This pretty mess inside out heads.”
This fades into “Once Upon a Timid Willow,” one of the more eclectic tracks on Forever Sparrow. In one song, Color Cassette uses plucked strings that sound like a child’s music box, clanging church bells and finally a picking banjo. It’s not exactly sound and fury signifying nothing (like most of Forever Sparrow, it’s far too ambient to resemble anything close to fury) but the song does illustrate one of the album’s biggest drawbacks, in that Corder and his main collaborator Matt Yarington sometimes get lost in their own noodling.
The album finds a little more focus on its fourth track, “Lost at Least at Last.” The song is one of the first to have a proper beat, no matter how mild, and even a jaunty little riff. The next song, “Angels and Ashes,” begins with a mournful string section and has somewhat more flushed out lyrics that are easier to follow (if not exactly easy to comprehend): “You gave me a name and a nautical noose / For a prodigal army inside of my veins.”
After that, the album literally slips out to sea. The song “Small Town Smoker”—which was the name of, but didn’t appear on Color Cassette’s debut EP – pairs wind chimes with a gently rocking rhythm giving the essence of being on a ship.
While this is engaging at first, around track nine, Forever Sparrow is set adrift. The occasional shake of maracas, and a flash of Radiohead influence are bright spots, but mostly the album peters out over the last three tracks. On the final track, “La Fin du Monde,” even Corder seems ready for it to be over as he sings, “Let it go / Just let it be.”
Music that sounds like it was composed in a rustic cabin on a quiet summer night is something of a zeitgeist right now, and Color Cassette shares a strand or two of DNA with the Justin Vernons and Sam Beams of the world. But Corder and Yarington are also clearly transfixed with more modern approaches. The biggest problem with Forever Sparrow is not that it enters the magic forest, but that it gets lost in there. Of course, if you’ve got some time to kill, sometimes getting lost isn’t all that bad.