Under the moniker Tender Mercy, musician Mark Kramer creates eerie and unnerving skeletons of songs out of little more than a few carefully plucked notes on guitar, some semi-whispered vocals and valleys upon tender valleys of reverb. He has a new record, title: War Within, out this month on Louisville label Obsolete Staircases and it is a decidedly evocative affair, though of what it’s hard to say.
Kramer’s voice is an airier thing than Bill Callahan’s gritty baritone – Kramer sits somewhere near the intersection of the half-mumbled, almost wordless whispers of A Minor Forest’s Erik Hoversten and the more warbled tenor of Thom Yorke. But Callahan’s Smog, and especially the stripped-bare acoustics of The Doctor Came At Dawn and Kicking A Couple Around, are clearly a point of reference. (Or reverence.) This is a record that aims to do a lot with very, very little. Kramer clearly is out to make emotive music out of as few puzzle-pieces as possible and, though not every track on War Within flirts with capital-M Minimalism, especially in terms of expansion and heat, it most definitely is a lower-case-M minimalist work, and a pretty damned effective one to boot.
Some of the songs on the new LP can be downright devastating in their scarcity of musical road-markers. Three songs in, we find “Reveal,” where Kramer lilts back and forth, sometimes rhythmically, into a gentle falsetto over a deconstructed arpeggio. It’s almost impossible to hear the words he’s singing, but the thrust of the feeling behind the singing says everything it needs to say. In a world of pop divas and cluttery remix-reboots, it’s both alarming and refreshing to hear music this bare.
Elsewhere, the record leans a little too much on its formula. On “I’m Being Followed,” Kramer walks into the opportunity to turn his highly isolationist vocals inside out, making them a kind of vehicle for paranoia and dread. But, instead of some occasionally interesting though incidental ambience, the song lacks direction and punch. It’s beautiful, sure, in a muted kind of way. But it’s very similar to what surrounds it. And that lack of distinguishing features doesn’t make big, “universal” statements; it makes some tracks feel a little gray – and not in a good way.
Kramer redeems himself on the early movements of “Once Again,” where a searing (by this record’s standards, anyway) though undistorted solo note on guitar leads to Loren Connors-like figures. Well done, sir! It’s an indication of just how much command Kramer has over his sonic approach, this ability to build a whole song’s foundation out of a few strands of feathers. War Within really can be an interesting, even embryonic listen – not to mention great sad-sack self-pity music for the maximalist-challenged. Kramer’s clearly onto something here. The record is not without its shortcomings – music this daring often risks that very thing – but its ambition and adherence to mission alone make it worth hearing.