Album Review: Christopher Paul Stelling – False Cities

By on Monday, 15th July 2013 at 12:00 pm

Christopher Paul Stelling False Cities coverBrooklyn-based indie folk songwriter Christopher Paul Stelling is currently touring America in conjunction with the release of his second album, ‘False Cities’. His first album ‘Songs of Praise and Scorn’ was absorbed in the indistinguishable morass of acoustic folk rock, but this new set of songs makes a more dramatic mark.

With ‘False Cities’, Stelling has expanded his sound beyond the sheer virtuosity of his guitar playing to include a wider array of musical influences, including African-American spirituals (‘How Long’) and Spanish flamenco (‘Who I Am’). The most notable difference from his previous album, though, is in Stelling’s singing. Here, he makes excellent expressive use of his voice, which changes in texture from light whisper to savage growl with apparent ease. Stelling’s vocal delivery takes center stage in the album’s opening track and first single, ‘Brick X Brick’ (video below). The song’s frenetic pace becomes more intense with each howling delivery of the lyric, “Brick by brick, I will tear this city down / And from the remnants I’ll build me a road”.


‘Every Last Extremist,’ is a more traditionally folk track, but its foot-stomping rhythm and virtuosic guitar line would be impressive in live performance. Up tempo tracks ‘Free to Go’ and ‘Writhing in Shambles’ also display both the newly discovered anguish in Stelling’s voice and his chops on the acoustic guitar. One of the most intriguing tracks on the album is ‘The Waiting Swamp’. Stelling captures the visceral, almost religious, feeling of darkness with minor key harmonies and rustling percussion behind the mysterious lyrics, “In the evening, I like best to just close my eyes and sway / Sing that hymn my sweet mama taught me / Alleluia anyway”.

Current single ‘You Can Make It’ (stream below) reveals the softer side of ‘False Cities’. With its simple, sweetly melodic chorus and dulcet backing vocals feels, it remarkably like the “exhausted lullaby” mentioned in its lyrics. Similarly gentle, ‘Homesick Tributaries’ is a rumination on the father-son relationship reminiscent of Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle’. The song’s light acoustic texture and straightforward poetic structure set the focus squarely on Stelling’s pensive lyrics, “If I ever have a son here of my own / I pray he’ll have his mother’s eyes / They’ll both see that Daddy tries / If I ever have a son here of my own”. The album closes on another delicate ballad, the yearning and melancholy ‘Go Your Way, Dear’.

Despite the obvious comparisons to more mainstream folk artists, the musical range of ‘False Cities’, especially Stelling’s powerful vocal delivery, makes a unique impression. His fire-and-brimstone lyrics are by turns concretely narrative and vaguely evocative, depending on the tone and focus of the song. As a songwriter, Stelling handles his subject matter quite deftly. And while his studio performance on the album is effective, I have a feeling his impact would be greater in a live performance setting.


‘False Cities’, the latest album from Christopher Paul Stelling, is out now on Mecca Lecca Recordings. Stream the entire album below.

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