Lilting into the scene, a slightly auto-tuned and lightly harmonized Sam Skinner unravels his thoughts over sparse instrumentation and ethereal feedback. The track is “Learn,” the opener of Danny Through Junior, Skinner’s debut album that drops January 13 via Soft Speak Records. A clunky piano anchors the song, repeatedly finding patterns only to be abruptly cut out, usually in conjunction with the vocals. The landscape teases growing into something more massive, but it never really happens.
Written and mastered before Sam Skinner’s time spent on a breakout tour with Pinegrove, Danny Through Junior offers a look into a more truly independent Skinner, still just making music with his friends. “Learn” and “Chestnuts,” the other single released before the album, both bear similar musical qualities to Everything So Far, a Pinegrove compilation album that combines several of their early Bandcamp-released EPs. Which makes sense, considering Skinner also mixed and mastered Everything So Far. On that album, as well as the forthcoming Danny Through Junior, we are able to hear Skinner’s knack for in-the-room intimacy juxtaposed with estranging studio alterations. He invites us into his world to an extent but seems to prefer the abstraction of music to literal narrative.
Listen: “Learn” – Sam Skinner
Given Skinner’s relation to Pinegrove and the fact that Evan Stephens Hall features on the album, it’s hard to not consider Danny Through Junior another stepping stone in the revitalization of alt-country. That being said, “Learn” leans more towards Lambchop than Wilco, at least initially keeping Danny Through Junior on the outskirts of the dreaded genre. It also helps that Skinner’s vocals are much more akin to the plaintive musings of Porches’ Aaron Maine than to the twang of Pinegrove’s Evan Stephens Hall. But perhaps most importantly, Skinner’s music goes nowhere near the lazy, ignorant moping that has dragged alt-country into the pit of frowned upon genres.
“Learn” speaks bleakly of coming to terms with relative insignificance.
On top of the tallest building
I’m looking down
That tells me something
I’ll never learn
The lyrics wrestle with the possibility of change, wondering if any single achievement will truly make life inherently different. The introduction of feedback flourishes does suggest an unseen force at work, operating as an entirely different waveform than the piano/drums/vocals. The conversation Skinner creates between feedback and instrumentation lingers to the end, acting as a more abstracted dialogue on the idea of whether change, or fundamental understanding of self or other, is possible. Skinner concludes that he will never learn, but it remains under scrutiny whether the lack of learning needs to be something to be down about. There is indeed a general hope that comes from the final minute of instrumentation and feedback. Skinner finds a way to allow the two to coexist, illustrating the possibility that learning or understanding may not necessarily be the key to harmony. Instead, it may be that the two inherently balance each other out, feedback, after all, is only possible with an instrument or microphone in relation to a speaker.
There is a certain sort of knowledge obtained by listening to music that a textbook will never be able to convey (let alone an article like this). The strength of Sam Skinner lies in his meticulous production, which enables him to activate areas of the mind that teach these abstract lessons rather than more strict narrative morals. The abstract approach can be complicated to dissect and is perhaps less immediately rewarding, but “Learn” and Danny Through Junior as a whole will likely provide plenty to get cerebrally lost in. Which is really where the fun is to be had. Perhaps not “learning” anything that can be specifically named, but still eagerly exploring the possibilities and nuances of life through music.
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credit: Sam Skinner © Lucie Murphy