Jeff Pianki’s “Paper Window” Revisited

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Now make no mistake, as a junior in college, I have the hometown visit down to a science. I have my personal rituals when I return to my home in Sterling Heights; I see particular people, I eat at particular restaurants, I drive down particular roads to particular places.

I walk the lands of my youth and never fail to see that it is growing up like me. After spending Spring Break ’13 soaking up the nostalgia in its present-day form, I found myself heading down the highway back to East Lansing with Jeff Pianki’s folky Paper Window playing over the speakers and Sterling Heights in my rearview mirror. I thought I was well-versed in the art of the living memory, but Pianki upstaged me in just eight songs.

On his Bandcamp page, Pianki notes that Paper Window is “a collection of songs written with the intent of exploring memories. Some are mine, some are hers, some are yours. The songs all mean a whole lot to me, and were recorded in my bedroom in the last half of 2010.” Right before pressing “Play” on this album, I doubted that any musician had the power to do something like tell me about my memories, as many open mic nights had proved that. The thirty second intro to the album, “Reenactment Pt. 1,” immediately crushed my cynicism with an abrupt plunge into the ethereal. A chorus of sighs and falling pianos, all with reverb liberally applied, had me thinking “Wait, just how big is this guy’s bedroom?”

All of this beauty and whimsy fade quickly into a single acoustic guitar with the beginning of “Missing Parts,” the second song. Here Pianki asks, “Now that I’m not around / Who’s gonna love you now?” and is also where my car ride went from “leaving home” to “post-breakup soul searching” in an instant. Driving into a sunset muddied by clouds, I took in the clearly personal words of a suffering relationship. I didn’t have any lingering romantic repentances, but Pianki was intent on proving otherwise and he was damn convincing. If the song were a minute longer I might have made a few phone calls to some girls that I’d end up regretting later (I’m joking, obviously—especially if you’re one of those girls).

The bare, piano-driven “Paper Window Dreams” and the chiming guitars and keys of “On Forgetting” are sort of thesis for the album in that Pianki suggests that memories are vulnerable to being forgotten or distorted by time, but photographs give them some materiality. We can look out of the paper windows and into the past, but we can’t, however, touch or affect what is happening on the other side of them anymore. As I got farther and farther away from home, I wondered why exactly we as humans have the desire to preserve the past. Pianki helped me come to the conclusion that the past is fixed like a photograph and cannot be changed if remembered and cherished. Unlike the unpredictability of the present and future, we know what the past holds in store and it is okay to reminisce and take solace in its certainty from time to time.

“New York or Here” is where Pianki expands on the “thesis” of the album, both musically and lyrically. He sings, “Love will surround you my dear / In the autumn or spring / In New York or here.” It presents a new dimension to the dynamic of memory in claiming that love is not only invulnerable to the effects of time and space but can actually cure the emotional pain caused by these literal and figurative distances as well. It’s a comforting thought to anyone with such obstacles in the way of being with loved ones. This was especially the case for someone like me, headed in the opposite direction of my friends and family at 75mph. The cry of a lap steel along with the usual guitar and piano gives the song an extra touch of humble hominess. Pianki charms with the sounds he makes and also his impressive range of DIY musical talent. It’s a warm, pleasant retreat from bands with four guitarists and tracks composed completely on a laptop.

“This Town” seems to tie in everything Pianki previously presented in the earlier tracks, from the lyrical content to the musical arrangement. Accompanied by a cello, he muses on his guitar about happenings in a nameless town that hold a great deal of personal importance. As he sang and I drove, I began to think of my hometown. In this period of self-reflection, I came to the realization that his vague words allow listeners to project their own memories on top of the lyrics and it is in this way that Pianki’s lyrics do not merely evoke memories within you, but narrate specific moments in your life back to you. At some points during the album, he is your best friend from home reminiscing with you in your kitchen over coffee, and at others he is some wise-beyond-his years Ghost of Christmas Past. Pianki is the projectionist for the movie based on the part life that is over, and you’re watching it in a theater with everyone you’ve ever been close to, living or dead.

I was a bit disappointed by the track that follows, “Old Habits,” but only because “This Town” was placed before it instead of after. “This Town” has much more of an all-encompassing finality to it lyrically speaking, whereas “Old Habits” goes back to the private relationship matters of “Missing Parts,” and may be even more specific and personal in nature. This can also be said for the sound itself; “This Town” is a reverberating soundscape whereas “Old Habits” has an intimate harmonica and banjo setup. This conflict exemplifies Pianki’s musical style on Paper Window; there is a constant ebb and flow of stripped-down folk and spacey alternative elements. With his multi-instrumentalist talents, it will be interesting to see if he bends or breaks the boundaries of the folk genre with future projects.

When the album closed with “Reenactment Pt. 2,” which is a short outro that sounds much like the intro, it was like reading the last page of a great book, and it drummed up that sort of bittersweetness when it was over. The album ended with much time to go until reaching East Lansing. I sat in silence until I got in range of the Impact’s signal. In that time, I looked at the passing houses from the freeway and thought about how someone out there calls those houses “homes.” Arriving back on campus, I was certain that EL was just as much a home as Sterling Heights because of the good times I’ve had here. Memories are what make a house a home. The nature of memory guarantees that they will always be homes no matter where I go in the future.

Overall, the only thing I was left wondering was how Pianki writes songs that cater to memories in such an accurate manner. I soon came to the conclusion that he knows what it’s like to have “been there” emotionally because he has “been there” himself. In this respect, I feel like the album is one big, comforting “I know them feels, man” hug. But in all sincerity, I haven’t felt a catharsis like this from an album in a long time. Its message is a lasting one, and it truly gives a whole new perspective to when people say, “Take lots of pictures in college.”

Watch a video of Jeff P. at Harriet Brown HERE!

Written by Kevin Glide


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