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Without a free hand

Clarke and the Himselfs' indie rock thrives on self-imposed limitations

Clarke and the Himselfs deliver winking, warbling indie rock. Photo credit: Jeremy Conant

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What is it that drives an artist to start a one-person band? Frequently, the prevailing wisdom is that a one-person band is born out of a musician not wanting to compromise his vision by collaborating with others, but that might be a little simplistic. Some musicians like to impose limits on themselves - like Joe Jackson not allowing guitars on one of his albums, or Queen proudly announcing in the liner notes of one of their albums that no synthesizers were utilized. Something tells me that some people go it alone just for the challenges that will come out of trying to create a full sound with one set of hands.

I can't speak for Boise-based musician Clarke Howell's reasons for starting his one-man band, Clarke and the Himselfs, but I can say that he's certainly not made it easy on himself when it comes to performing. Of all the one-person band configurations I've seen, Clarke and the Himselfs' setup is somehow both the simplest and most precarious. Rather than press play on some prerecorded tracks to augment the live performance, or strap a complicated contraption onto his back, Howell sits behind a drum kit, holding a guitar and a drumstick, and simultaneously strums and drums. Believe it or not, the execution is not nearly as awkward as you might be imagining.

Howell's debut LP, boasting the delightfully old-fashioned, Paul Simon-esque title of The Well-Rounded Clarke and the Himselfs, is a monument to minimalism at its most deceptively expansive. Disguising his voice with a tinny trilling effect, Howell at first seems to be aiming for the typical Nuggets-era touchstones that so many other modern psychedelic garage rockers fetishize. Listen further, though, and Howell's ambitions reveal themselves to be more diverse and odd than they first appear. Clarke and the Himselfs cover a surprising - and uniformly catchy - amount of ground, creating little pop gems along the way, in spite of the limitations inherent with using only guitar and drums.

The triumphant "Asteroid," melodically, comes off a bit like a cosmos-minded garage rock take on Robyn's "Dancing On My Own," wistful and anthemic in equal measure. "Sun Shines On You," with burying its hooks under layers of tape hiss, sounds like peak Guided By Voices, "Suicide Girl" explodes from a slow-building rumble and a laundry list of miserable ruminations on love, and the warbly, hiccupy "Untitled" sounds like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at their most nose-thumbingly difficult.

Along the way, it's never made quite clear how much of this is an exercise for Howell, and how much is coming from the heart. Is "Suicide Girl" really the cry for help it seems to be, or is it a winking take on teenage sorrow in its most purple, gloom-soaked glory? Clarke and the Himselfs is a one-man band built around the tension between artistic formality and emotional expression, given visual representation by the sight of Howell singlehandedly juggling the duties of a full band, his vocals shielded by a layer of distancing effects. To discern what's a wink and what's a confession is probably useless, and the melodies produce such effective ear-worms that this kind of examination isn't remotely necessary to enjoy the songs.

Clarke and the Himselfs rises above its gimmick in grand fashion, producing songs that would be just as compelling without the parlor trick of seeing them performed by one man. Still, there's nothing wrong with being delighted by such a trick, and Howell pulls it off with fascinating flourish. "Asteroid" gets stuck in your head better than any number of interchangeable indie rock singles - that one man without a free hand created it is plenty impressive.

Clarke and the Himselfs, w/ Sunny Glorioso and the Sick Nasty Burn, Grimmie, Skeptical Leftovers, Blonde Lip, Sunday, Aug. 21, 9 p.m., Cover TBA, Westside Lanes, 2200 Garfield Ave. NW, Olympia, 360.943.2400

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