Golden Rules the Thumb

After the Brass

Golden Rules the Thumb
After the Brass
Nice Cast Records

Golden Rules the Thumb makes art rock. That’s a slippery term, even a smear in some circles, but applied to this group I mean rock that’s been fussed over like an oil painting, layers and details added until the result is more than a song — more like an abstract expression of musical beauty.

Golden Rules is the new vehicle for Portland songwriter, singer and guitarist Tyler Jackson, an elaboration and elevation of the indie rock he made for over a decade, with some of the same musicians, as Foam Castles. Their self-titled 2018 debut was exceptionally good, and this follow-up does not disappoint.

Tess Van Horn, whose vocals sweetened several songs on the debut, merely haunts After the Brass, which is a bit of a bummer. But Greg Bazinet moved from bass to guitar, giving this record a gnarlier sound when it needs it. Peet Chamberlain swapped his four-string for keys and keeps finding interesting places to slip them into the mix. And multi-instrumentalist Derek Gierhan — who was also in Endless Jags, the great side project Jackson had with Thumbs drummer Jonas Eule and others — is now on bass, and damn near steals the show. His funk line on “How Long” would’ve made the late/great English remix master Andrew Weatherall drool, and on tracks like “Even Though I Knew” and “Walk on the Water,” the expressiveness of Gierhan’s playing burbles assertively to the surface.

It’s the depth of these songs that really impresses, especially when experienced to the exclusion of the world via headphones or ear buds. Opener “Lucinda River” is a prime example, a wistful strummer that’s gradually enveloped by its hazily gorgeous atmosphere. Eule plays the shruti box, an Indian drone instrument, on this track and its counterpart, the instrumental closer “Lucinda,” imparting a meditative, almost mystical tinge to the album.

“Already Arrived” and “Motorcade” provide the rock fix, and “Watered Down Utopia” contains some of the best lyrics (“Geniuses on beaches drink the water in this watered-down utopia”).

The high point is the centerpiece, “Highball Equator.” Jackson accidentally nicks The Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for a Superman” when he begins the line, “What used to be heaven is now a wasteland you can see,” and later humorously yearns for “a clean-cut dinosaur world.” But if you listen to “Highball” next to the Lips’ 1999 “hit” (No. 73 on the U.K. singles chart), as I just did, you’ll realize Jackson’s team is making art rock of more alluring strangeness and sophistication than Wayne Coyne’s crew pulled off back then while trying twice as hard to be odd.

A limited-edition 12” LP of After the Brass, pressed on light blue vinyl, begins shipping this month. All download sales via the group’s Bandcamp page will be donated to Portland’s Preble Street Resource Center.