Eric Chenaux has guitar skills and a neat sense of phrasing. It’s too bad his songwriting on Sloppy Ground is dull, and that his attempts to weird up the compositions only make them more frustrating to hear. Every word and note on this record sounds like it could come from the middle of the song. Even the beginnings and ends of the tunes have that quality. The same goes for Chenaux’s guitar style: his dynamics and sustains cause every phrase to lead into the next, without propelling the songs forward or backward. Every tune seems to hang in one place, ending at the same level of tension at which it began.
That emotional stasis, in spite of all the lyrical playing and earnest vocals, makes Sloppy Ground an unusual listen. But it’s also a frustrating one, because long songs that don’t progress get tedious. There are precious few memorable phrases, let alone melodies. That might not matter if there was some groove to carry the songs along, but seven of the nine have light rhythm that doesn’t anchor the music. Or, if the bland tonal palette served some hypnotic or tension-builidng purpose, it wouldn’t be a problem, either. But it doesn’t.
Sloppy Ground includes a few especially weird compositional choices. It begins with a minute-long, free-sounding introduction to “Am I Lovely,” which phases timbres in an interesting way, but again, the notes played sound pointless and the section doesn’t add to the song.
The strangest decision is to have drummer Nick Fraser play a minute-long snare drum solo at the end of the six-minute “Boon Harp.” It’s uneventful and pointless.
The one that works begins 90 seconds into “Love Don’t Change.” Chenaux abruptly stops singing and solos for three minutes. Along the way, with great support from Fraser, he lays down the majority of the album’s interesting rhythm and melody. When it’s done, he resumes singing nonchalantly, as if he hadn’t just ripped a ridiculous three-minute guitar solo. It’s a great gesture that’s certainly in Chenaux’s idiom: a massive, blatant interruption of the song that the players act ignorant of once it’s concluded.
Unfortunately, it towers over the rest of this uneventful album. It’s not that Chenaux needs to insert weird parts into songs: on 2006’s Dull Lights, a relatively conventional tune called “Worm and Gear” employed his tentative phrasing, his banjo skill, and Fraser’s artful drumming to great, majestic effect. But Sloppy Ground lacks hooks, rhythm, and tension, and despite the rich instrumental palette and sharp production, there isn’t much to listen to.