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“String Ladders” (LP) by The Color Forty Nine

The California desert has inspired countless bands and styles over the years, and its influence can certainly be felt in the new album String Ladders from San Diego’s own The Color Forty Nine. Comprised of folk and surreal, almost atmospheric rock elements that touch on a theme of isolation, String Ladders’ “What Would I Know,” “Battling Down,” and “Fly On” expand upon a trend in indie folk/rock that has never been realized quite the way a lot of other acts have hoped; balancing a void of heavy silence with the delicate scowl of string instruments. There are traces of the gypsy punk and dark folk revivals that took the American underground by storm here, but overall, it’s hard to compare the whole of this record to anything I’ve heard before.

String Ladders features an implied lyrical protagonist that is scarcely relatable to the average listener, but the musings he offers are perhaps the most intriguing piece of the album’s puzzle. Adding to the isolation created through the guitar-born melodies in the background, the verses in “What Would I Know,” “Hold My Hand,” “String Ladder,” and “I’m Going to Try” are an agent of evocation designed to make us feel alone, cold, and completely cut off from anything other than the music. It’s trying and deeply emotional, but surprisingly cleansing to listen to without interruption. Without being as campy as the typical concept piece, String Ladders has continuity most progressive LPs desperately try to mimic (but few manage to capture).

The guitar is the aching foundation of this record, and in songs like “Battling Down,” it represents that bit of pain all of us carry that we can never quite escape, even in the happiest of moments. There’s something so deafeningly lonesome about its chime in this track, and I found myself listening to the song several times just to connect with it more thoroughly. To understand the reasons why you are hurting is to know how to never hurt again, and though it’s a roundabout way of making this point, the complex relationship between lyrics and guitar strings shapes this narrative effortlessly in “Battling Down,” which is probably why it’s become one of my go-to songs in this tracklist.

Simply put, String Ladders is a fascinating venture into both darkness and self-analysis – and points at which they inadvertently intersect – most enjoyed when consumed from start to finish without shuffling the songs. While I think there’s a lot of charm in the American underground overall, I can’t say that I’ve heard another record quite as spellbinding as this one since Jim Clement’s bold A Failure back in 2018. In this LP, The Color Forty Nine take the remote vibes of the Mojave Desert and fashion them with a rustic lyricism that occasionally sounds like something torn from the pages of a seaside-kept journal; both full of hope and pessimism in equal measure. The San Diego music scene is too often eclipsed by the greater population of L.A. and Orange County, but bands like this make the city circuit impossible to ignore.

article by John McCall

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