Album Review: Early Day Miners — Placer Found

When I think of shoegaze, I tend to conjure up thoughts of gauzy, heavily layered music with a somnabulant, faraway vibe. But of course the subgenre has more variety than that. Case in point is the debut album from Bloomington, Indiana’s Early Day Miners, 2000’s Placer Found. The album strikes an intimate vibe not wholly unlike jazz albums of the ’50s. Surely this music doesn’t sound or feel like jazz, but the album is possessed of a you-are-there immediacy that makes it a kindred spirit of sorts.

A big part of that character comes from the way that Rory Leith’s drums are played and recorded; there no reverb or other effects to clutter or otherwise distort the straightforward thump and clatter of his percussion. And when he plays at a glacial pace – as he does often on Placer Found, but “East Berlin at Night” provides a handy example – the character is accentuated.

Dan Burton sings in a melodic whisper; this music all but insists upon being experienced in a candlelit room, alone or with close friends (thus making it especially apropos for listening in the quarantine era). The songs all contain the requisite amount of melody, but don’t approach Placer Found expecting hooks or even songs that will linger in the memory after they fade to silence. That’s not at al w hat this album is about. That immediacy I mentioned is a feature, not a bug, and it also means that the record is designed to be experienced in the here-and-now; if you think of it later, go ahead and spin it again, and enjoys its pleasures again, in that real time.

The guitars (by Burton and Joe Brumley) glisten, Kenny Childers’ bass is the sonic embodiment of subtlety and the keyboards are … well, they’re used quite sparingly. Placer Found creates its aura through a comparatively small array of instruments. The liner notes credit Burton with “treatments,” but as found here, those are the kind of things that are worked so quietly into the mix that you won’t even notice them. Occasionally Burton plays single notes on a piano, and the gentle swirling melodic figures caress your ears. Now and then – but not often, mind you – Leitch will hit a tom, or the snare, or one of his cymbals a bit harder, but as a rule he exercises restraint.

Acostic guitar figures into the mix as well; the lovely, minimalist instrumental “In These Hills” is an acoustic-based answer to the static tone poems on Brian Eno’s Another Green World. Mid-way through the lengthy (eight minutes-plus) track, a shimmering wall of electirc guitar acts like an aural curtain, a comfortable backdrop for the gentle acoustic picking at the center of the mix.

By the time listeners get to “Stanwix” – the fifth of Placer Found‘s nine tracks – they’ll have realized that Early Day Miner aren’t going to change up their approach in any major way. Nor do they need to, really. But the tune does feature some nicely expressive slide guitar, spinning out extended notes atop the gentle backing. Some sustained organ chords add a bit of texture as well.

“Longwall” is comparatively energetic; it features the most spirited drum performance of the album, and a stronger, more memorable set of chords than found on previous tracks. There’s more shade and light as well, provided by high;lighting the contrast between the uptempo (we’re grading on a curve here) sections and breaks during which the whole band stops for a moment. All those ingredients add up to make “Longwall’ the best track on Placer Found. But even here the band colors within the lines it has set out for itself.

“Desert Cantos” reprises the use of slide guitar, and ups the dissonance quotient. There’s a high lonesome, haunted feel to the song. Sparing use of piano reinforces that character. In the second half of the piece – one that runs in excess of 13 minutes — there are disembodied squalls of guitar and hard hits on the drums; the band cuts loose. They sound like they might even be standing up while playing!

“Prospect Refuge” offers up more of the same. But again, in the context of this album, that’s not a criticism. If one knows what to epxect, the opportunity exists to luxuriate in this downtempo music. And to be fair, Brumley adds a new element – harmonica – to the mix.

The album – newly reissued as a 2LP vinyl set in a beautiful gatefold sleeve – concludes with “Blue Casino.” There’s a stronger, insistent beat at work in part of this track, but the change isn’t so radical as to jar the listener from his or her reverie. As the song (and album) crawls toward its end, the band hits things a bit harder. But just a bit.

In the years that followed the release of their debut, Early Day Miners would go on to make six more albums and two EPs. Over the years, the group’s lineup has changed fairly constantly; today only Burton remains from the lineup that made Placer Found.

The current group’s latest release – the first musical dispatch from them since 2011’s Night People – is the second of those EPs, The Ongoing Moment. Songs like “Night Suit” show that Early Day Miners have moved more toward conventional shoegaze style, with impassioned (not whispered) vocals and a wall-of-sound vibe. Worthwhile, but quite different from their sound of two decades ago.