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Muddling in the dark

The Washboard Abs have bittersweet acoustic pop and evocative lyrics

The Washboard Abs make compelling acoustic pop with cutting lyrics. Photo credit: Aspyn Garfield

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Since indie recording became a thing, Olympia has always seemed to be on the forefront of propping up and supporting idiosyncratic solo artists. Whenever an album needs to be made by one person in a bedroom or tiny studio somewhere, musicians come out of the woodwork to provide backing vocals, auxiliary instrumentation, and odd sounds to peppered in and around the leading voice. It's this phenomenon that has given us evocative time capsules from people like Calvin Johnson and Phil Elverum, even as the phenomenon continues to this very day. Weirdos are never in short supply in Olympia, and they strive on coming together for experiments and flights of fancy.

Clarke Sondermann is such a weirdo, and though he hasn't always made his home in Olympia (having spent time in Anchorage and Denver), he fits right in with his solo/inclusive project, The Washboard Abs. Right off the bat, his music evokes the lo-fi, occasionally seedy work of the Moldy Peaches, while also possessing the stately music of Badly Drawn Boy, with impeccable melodies and dignified guitar lines. Sondermann's frequently hushed, layered voice can't help but also bring to mind the famously isolated music of Elliott Smith, even as his lyrics don't quite dip into the miserablism that Smith's largely did.

The Washboard Abs' recently released LP, have u scanned ur club card?, consists of 12 brief songs that balance emotion with incisive imagery, most strikingly on "Sugar Skull," which packs six stanzas into two minutes. If the first two songs on the album sounded a little sleepy, "Sugar Skull" shakes you to attention with a stunner of an opening: "The first time I did cocaine, the pleasure didn't feel like pain, but I lied awake ‘til 8 a.m., alone. The first time I ran away, I thought that nothing was the same, and I crawled the empty streets to greet the dawn." Over a relatively jaunty guitar, Sondermann recalls a tale of sinking very low, but knowing that a person he used to know is probably going through the same thing, too. It's a bittersweet sentiment, and it's not clear whether Sondermann is happy or sad to know that his old flame is feeling the same.

On have u scanned ur club card?, Sondermann is joined by several guest vocalists and musicians, intermittently, to lend a little volume to the mostly hushed songs. In addition to the piano, found sounds, and various tape tricks that Sondermann includes on the album, Miriam Vonnahme, Angelo Vitello, Matilde Van Fleet, Brendan Burton, and Mike Kaplan all show up to imbue the record with texture to give it an even stronger sense of intimacy than it would have if it was just Sondermann all by himself. Instead of just being a bedroom folk artifact, have u scanned ur club card? becomes a testament to finding friends in difficult times, lifting up these songs so they don't sound so terribly lonesome.

To be sure, The Washboard Abs errs more on the side of sorrow than on uplift, but there are moments of sunshine that peak out through the low-hanging clouds. When Sondermann's voice rises above a whisper, there's a confidence that comes through, revealing him as a singer-songwriter who isn't merely content to wallow in melancholy, but who knows enough about human nature and the passing of time to anticipate the future, rather than dread or fear it. Ultimately, The Washboard Abs is a project about the complications of life, not shying away from heartache, but acknowledging that the only way forward is through, even if that means having to muddle about in the darkness for a time.

The Washboard Abs, w/ Cool Void, Celluloid, Kids Menu, Tuesday, May 31, 8 p.m., Cover TBA, Le Voyeur, 404 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.943.5710

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