Jim Putnam has such a sweet voice. The ex-Medicine guitarist isn't mentioned at all in their bio
, which most Medicine fans I'm sure don't notice or care about. But I'm not a Medicine fan - I've never heard their stuff, and what I've read of them doesn't make me want to. No, I'm a Radar Brothers fan. There's no real website for them online, just the same potted record label biography. The AMG
does a pretty good job, although they keep calling them "Radar Bros." and the copy of And The Surrounding Mountains
I grabbed in NYC has the full "Brothers".
Back to Putnam. He has a high, fragile voice of great beauty, and he writes desert-baked songs of incomparable menace. In both of their albums that I've heard, the one I own now and the on-order The Singing Hatchet
, he's telling a story. Well, not quite that literally. There are characters, yes, and events, but they are obliquely tagged, never named and explained. And in each case, something horrible has happened.
Putnam is smart enough to leave the details to your imagination, but death and injury and colonization and ostracism and family weirdness lay thick over And The Surrounding Mountains
like heat haze. Radar Brothers' Low-meets-Pink-Floyd sound, rich with slow motion guitars and warm analogue keyboards, has some of the least dynamic variation from song to song of any band I've ever loved, but the effect isn't boredom; it's to lure you deeper into Putnam's spell, entrancing you into the story he hints at.
I'm pretty sure And The Surrounding Mountains
takes place in a weird, timeless void; 'Still Evil' mentions that "I'll motor over there/the car will be dirty and hot", and a few other songs mention similar recent developments, there's a feeling of wilderness and pioneer spirit to the characters here that's just not true of The Singing Hatchet
and its gas stations. I am, of course, speculating wildly about what Putnam and the Brothers are up to; but he's silent, except for these records, and although I can't tell you what's going on here, I can feel it.
'Still Evil', with its backwards intro, might be the most purely terrifying song I've heard in a while. I can't tell you much about what happens in the wilderness on And The Surrounding Mountains
, but I can tell you that there are sides. And one, or both, of those sides are monstrous, or else there is a third side. Not literally monstrous, of course, but Putnam seems likely to subscribe to the theory that the worst monsters are human.
'Still Evil' could be sung from any side. After the slow, plucked opening refrain backed by a cello, Putnam softly intones the verses before coming to the refrain:
"For you are still evil
In my sword you'll be caught"
On the one hand, as I said, there is clearly evil in the world the Radar Brothers limn so expertly. So this song could be the sound of one person's resolve, doomed (in context of the album), to ferret out and destroy the infection.
But The Singing Hatchet
is redolent of intolerant small frontier towns, running strangers out of the district. And And The Surrounding Mountains
is heavy with the scent of inflexible missionaries, well-meaning but savage colonists, residence schools, the clash of cultures red in tooth and claw.
So the interpretation I have of 'Still Evil', no matter how hard I try is even more terrifying that the portrait of a good person's futile stand against evil. It's of a fanatic, hanging their conception of 'evil' from the highest tree. I can neither adequately explain nor justify the images songs sometimes give me, but when Putnam sings those lines with quiet fervor and a Beatlesque plucked guitar echoes him, I see a rider, blank-faced in his conviction, thundering in slow motion towards the camera. There is a sword in one hand - not upraised to slash, but held out, blade parallel to the horizon. There is another figure, the details not important, running away, even in slow motion their desperation apparant. The mounted figure continues to accelerate and in his sword we'll be caught, guilty or innocent.