Shana Cleveland & the Sandcastles’ “Oh Man, Cover the Ground” runs on an old aesthetic, generally speaking. It’s a meandering, post-folk record with fingerpicked acoustic guitar at the center. And, it relates back to the powerful, unsettling, what-comes-after-tradition impulse that musicians around the world were working out from the mid-’60s to the early ’70s: John Fahey, the Incredible String Band, Pentangle and on and on. But there’s something else here: some newer, self-possessed, low-flame, easy-rolling kind of curiosity, not particularly fixed in one aesthetic or another.
Cleveland is best known as a guitarist, singer and songwriter in La Luz, a Seattle band that plays hazily confident, low-stress surf-pop. “Oh Man” seems like a weird turn away from the sunniness of La Luz into a dark, contemplative sound — in fact, a dark, contemplative tradition — based in alternative guitar tunings.
But she was working on this music before La Luz started. She made most of “Oh Man” in 2011 and later added a cast of musicians on cello, clarinet, bass, piano and drums, some of whom play uncertainly, all of whom give the music a tincture or a mood, but none of whom are essential to it. (These are songs, however, not just moods.) She released a less evolved version of the album back then on CD-R, but you probably haven’t heard it unless you bought it from her at a gig; this is the album’s first official release.
It helps to have some knowledge of what Cleveland has done before you get here. This music is quiet and delicate and satisfied with small moments of emphasis: the hard pop and ring she puts on various low and high notes in fingerpicking patterns, as in “Butter & Eggs,” which is about driving and the smell of seawater. It’s humid and pretty and full of reverb, as in “Potato Chips,” where the regular swipings of a note up the neck are the most startling elements in the song. It’s referential, not just to the old fingerstyle guitarists but to the first few records by Cat Power, whose drowsy and swooping vocal phrasing is sometimes recalled by Cleveland. And it’s a music of moderate aloneness, not the desperate, attention-getting kind, but still a kind worth rendering.
Ben Ratliff, New York Times News Service