Two years ago, local songwriter David Kaczynski released his debut record, The Night of Arrows. Though it showed promise, the album also suggested that Kaczynski had a long way to go to transcend the influence of his musical idols and come into his own as an artist. Now, he returns with a follow-up record, True North, and has adopted Night of Arrows as his songwriting sobriquet. While a step forward creatively, Kaczynski/Night of Arrows still bears the telltale marks of a novice songwriter grappling with his artistic identity.
On his debut, Kaczynski overtly laid bare his admiration for dour songwriters such as Elliott Smith, Eddie Vedder and Mark Kozelek. At times on True North, he does a better job of filtering their influence, though it takes a little while to get there.
The album’s opening track, “Super Moon (Part 1),” is the first of a three-song suite that thematically informs the record’s somber mood. Whether the tune reflects insecurity, indecisiveness or a feckless experimental bent, the tune is a confusing mishmash of sound and audio trickery. Kaczynski wrote and performed every instrumental part on the record. And he’s a capable player. But here he buries what might be an interesting arrangement under a grating conflux and tinny distortion. Worse, he attempts to mask poor vocal intonation — a recurring problem throughout the record — with an ill-executed mix of double voicing and soupy reverb. The result is a brooding song that is almost comically melodramatic. It’s a suspect start. But things improve.
Spare and moody, “The Quitter” is an album highlight. Kaczynski strikes a fine balance between melancholy and introspection. He uses his naturally rounded and mournful baritone to great effect, cooing downcast lyrics with compelling ease. Here, Kaczynski seems to fully commit himself to, well, being himself. It’s among the least produced tracks on the record and easily one of its finest.
As on his debut, Kaczynski is at his best when he sticks to delivering his songs as simply as he can. He’s a talented writer with a unique viewpoint. And when he doesn’t meddle with hackneyed effects, that trait shines through, as on the angular alt-rock-informed “Managed Forest” and the acoustic/vocal number “East Meets West.” Unfortunately, those moments don’t come frequently enough. And sometimes when they do, Kaczynski tends to derail himself with curiously poor choices, such as on schizophrenic album closer “Wrecking Ball (Part 3).”
As a result, True North is the definition of “hit or miss.” It’s a frustrating, uneven record that largely fails to capitalize on the nascent promise of Kaczynski’s debut. But it does offer hope that he may put it all together next time.