All That Glitters is Gold - Who was J. Tillman?

 

This is All That Glitters is Gold, a recurring piece about some of my favorite artists, albums, tracks, and live shows. Here I will write about the music I love, most of which inspired me to start Alt Revue in the first place. I'm excited to highlight this music and talk about how it has impacted me. I hope you enjoy getting a glimpse into some of my favorites! 

 

If you've read Alt Revue long enough, or are into alt music, you most assuredly have come across the enigmatic

Father John Misty. He is a tireless force in alt music today having put out four studio albums and one live album since his debut in 2012. He's a favorite of fans and critics alike, often cited for his biting lyrics and fantastic vocals. He's hit the alt scene with the force of a fireball since his evolution. That is, since he was J. Tillman.

 

Some of you may know that Father John Misty's real name is Josh Tillman. Before he began recording under his current moniker, he served as the drummer of Fleet Foxes for their Helplessness Blues release. However, before this, he had a solo career between 2003-2010 in which he put out eight studio releases (this is not including his work with Saxon Shore).

 

The long and short of the story, the disgruntled Tillman felt he could do more than be a drummer in a band, there were some magic mushrooms involved and then Father John Misty was born. The transformation of the J. Tillman into Father John Misty is not what I'm here to talk about. Frankly, it's been done to death.

 

What I want to talk about that gets lost in the story is Who was J. Tillman? Especially musically. There are eight albums that most of this man's fans have never heard, that's what I want to tap into. I'm going to do a deep dive into each, spend time with the albums, give some recommendations, and share my thoughts on them in general. Just to be clear, I will not be comparing these works for quality to his later works as Father John Misty, as he clearly made the transition for a reason and that music should stand alone. I will though, highlight areas where in his evolution as J. Tillman you can see things he would take with him to being Father John Misty. With that said, let's go!

 

 

Untitled No. 1 (2003)

 

The first project of J. Tillman is the ever-elusive Untitled No. 1. Talk about tracking down the fountain of youth, finding a needle in a haystack, or finding life on mars! Damn this one is hard to find on the internet today! Mostly available streaming through YouTube and other various sites, given that it was originally released as a CD-R, Untitled No. 1 is tricky to get a hold of! Anyway, let's get to it! 

 

Untitled No. 1 finds Tillman in Seattle very much focused on the idea of being a singer/songwriter. That is very much the style that his music reflects. It's deeply folk, Americana at its roots, but simple at heart. I will point out that there are some beautiful falsettos from Tillman on this album that are well worth your time, especially on "The Queen of Swing". There are times on this album and I Will Return where Tillman's vocals hide. This is especially true on "The Heart is a Valve" where he's barely audible above the piano that accompanies him. This is either intentional or bad mixing on the producer's part. Given the regularity with which it happened in the initial albums, I might say that it had more to do with Tillman's singing style. Overall the album is an a strong lo-fi folk album, when examined through that lens.      

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "Let Me Put You Under My Wing" and "The Queen of Swing". 

I Will Return (2004) 

 

I Will Return begins softly, as much of J. Tillman's work does with "Lilac Hem". Featuring finger-picked guitar, a cello, and Tillman's vocals. It's understated, it's emotive, and features no rising action until almost the last 30 seconds of the song when piano enters.

Introductions are important, but what is I Will Return really all about? 

 

I Will Return is an album about restraint. Everything about it is restrained, Tillman's almost whispered vocals, the gently played melodies, the pairing of instrumentation. However, it may be easy to see this with hindsight given what we know about Tillman's vocal prowess now. Despite this, if I was Tillman's producer in 2004, I would have told him to stop holding back on his vocal chords and sing from his diaphragm more. That's not to say the vocals are bad, there are some great falsettos on the album that are crisp. I Will Return is isolation, it's a solo artist and his guitar (and a few other toys along the way) spilling his guts on every track. Does it hit every time? Absolutely not. Is it decent folk music? Yes, especially when the banjo comes in and pairs with Tillman's guitar. 

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "Trail of Red, Bride in White" and "Lilac Hem". 

Long May You Run, J. Tillman (2006)

 

Long May You Run, J. Tillman in many ways is similar to it's predecessor I Will Return. It's full of understated vocals and soft guitar. However, to say it's in the same vein would be to sell it a little bit short. It doesn't have the same shortcomings that I Will Return does. That is, Tillman has a bit more pep in his step here. Particularly on "Fireworks". "Wayward Glance Blues" features some great falsetto work that is combined with deep rhythm guitar. His vocals get stronger on this album as he doesn't sing quite as softly and emotes more into his vocalization. 

 

Beyond his vocals, Long May You Run, J. Tillman, features some of Tillman's more pronounced guitar-work thus far in his career. He engages in a lot more strumming patterns, uses pauses, and mutes. There aren't so many tracks where he softly finger picks his way through the song as there were on I Will Return. While it may not sound like much, in this particular singer-songwriter focused folk music, it can make a big difference in the tracks. If I had to pick a favorite track off this album, it would be "Ties that Bind". It gives us the most clear picture of what's come in his Father John Misty days, as Tillman uses more of his diaphragm to vocalize and sings to a strummed pattern.

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "Fireworks", "Wayward Glance Blues", "Seven States Across", and "Ties that Bind". 

Minor Works (2006)

 

Ah, Minor Works...The other needle in the haystack of Tillman's previous recording life. Similarly to Untitled No. 1, Minor Works is an elusive ghost on the internet. Your best bet of tracking it down is YouTube, though it can be purchased in Sub Pop's Mega Mart on CD.

 

By far my favorite track on this album was "Take Care". It's an alt-country track featuring some slight steel guitar and Tillman's smokey vocals. The percussion in the song is almost like a war drum and the addition of the harmonica is great. It's something you'd hear at the end of the night in your favorite hole in the wall bar when everyone should have left long ago. "Now You're Among Strangers" is another strong track that I'd recommend. It's a bit slower than "Take Care", but it features some harmonica work and Tillman's hushed vocals and guitar. It's a song that feels cinematic. You could easily hear it in a new country/western movie. Though, it must be stated even though it's largely understated throughout, it's absolutely stunning in it's simplicity.

 

My favorite hook on the album has to go to "With Wolves", it features the most vocal shifts by Tillman and the melody is solid. It's also worth mentioning that "Darling Night" shows Tillman diving headfirst into alt-folk more than the other tracks. We also see some of the first use of whistling in his music. 

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "Take Care", "Minor Works", and "Now You're Among Strangers".  

Cancer and Delirium (2007)

 

Cancer and Delirium is available on all streaming services, so no digging needed here. "Milk White Air" and "Evans and Falls" are the stronger starters for the album. I particularly enjoyed the use of banjo in "Evans and Falls". Whenever Tillman plays it straight sometimes his songs can become a bit indistinguishable to be honest with you. "Evans and Falls" also has some beautiful keys in it.

 

"Under the Sun" might be the most melodic tune on the album, with Tillman playing guitar with banjo in tow. He still has understated vocals from what we know is to come later, but compared to other J. Tillman tracks, he's actually a bit more upbeat on this one. "When I Light Your Darkened Door" has an older feel to it, with the solo banjo and Tillman's vocals on the verses. The drums and leads that join are fantastic, and help the song feel more full. This track reminds me of traditional Appalachian music. Tillman does a lot more vocally here than he normally does in his tracks as well. It might be one of my favorite J. Tillman tracks overall.  

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "Milk White Air", "Evans and Falls", "Under the Sun" and "When I Light Your Darkened Door"

Vacilando Territory Blues (2009)

 

"First Born" begins to show some signs of what we will see later in Father John Misty music, including the use of dubbed backing vocals by Tillman to make the song feel grander. It's certainly not just a man and his acoustic on this track. "Vessels" also feels a bit more grand than a J. Tillman song, though there's primarily Tillman with his acoustic. It's the hooks that stand out here. 

 

"James Blues" features unique and dynamic timing throughout it, that feels bigger than a simple folk song. I think that's the thing with Vacilando Territory Blues, Tillman is still in his realm, but he's experimenting with space, sound, instrumentation, and vocalization much more than he had on any of his past works. This is especially true on "Steel on Steel" which features a full on electric melody, with everything except for the vocals, you might see this appearing on a Father John Misty album. If Tillman projected more here, it certainly wouldn't stand out. With each album, we see Tillman growing out of his shell. What once was a man who would barely utter his phrases audibly and feature delicate guitar work, we now have a man more confidently fronting a full band on "Steel on Steel". 

 

Another track where Tillman breaks out a bit on the album is "New Imperial Grand Blues". It features a much more dynamic melody than we're used to hearing from Tillman. Including some great electric guitar, keys, and drums. This again is beginning to sound like Father John Misty, at least from the melody, Tillman's signature vocals haven't quite evolved yet, but it's still interesting to hear.  

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "First Born", "James Blues", "Steel on Steel", and "New Imperial Grand Blues" 

Year in the Kingdom (2009)

 

Year in the Kingdom starts with the title track, which sounds like a traditional J. Tillman track. Very much in the folk sphere of music, Tillman's vocals are getting less gravely as we move from album to album. "Crosswinds" backing vocals and guitar very much have a Father John Misty feel to them. However, Tillman's vocals are still a bit understated through the track. However, the cadence on Tillman's vocals is starting to be familiar of what will come to be later. 

 

What particularly stands out about Year in the Kingdom, is that it represents another step in Tillman finding his singing voice. His vocals are beginning to resemble his later work as Father John Misty. But more importantly, he's projecting from his diaphragm. He still retains his folk roots and the singer/songwriter aesthetic he's aiming for, but this is wrapped in a much better package. You can definitely see this album as a major step in his musical maturation. 

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "Crosswinds", "Howling Light", "Though I Have Wronged You", and "Marked in the Valley"

Singing Ax (2010)

 

Singing Ax kicks off with "Three Sisters" where you can already hear another vocal jump for Tillman. The track is extremely stripped down, but Tillman's vocals boom over the slight melody that is incorporated throughout. The hook really breaks out with some work on the electric guitar which would likely would have been unthinkable on Untitled No. 1. 

 

Tillman utilizes his vocals to employ falsettos on tracks like "Diamondback" and they are so tight. He utilized falsetto before, but not nearly as confidently as he does here. "Our Beloved Tyrant" represents Tillman's biggest evolution as a lyricist. It's an absolutely stunning song lyrically speaking. "Singing Ax" is another track in which Tillman retains his folk, singer/songwriter roots but he continues to push himself vocally. "Madness on the Mountain is a bit of a darker tune melody-wise. Especially when the string section breaks in, it's downright harrowing. However, what we see here is Tillman expanding his scope of his sound bringing in more instrumentation to make a much bigger sound, though I'd argue in this case it's a deeper sound.   

 

The album closes with the up-beat folk track "Maria" in which Tillman's vocals again dominate and the slow track "A Seat at the Table" in which Tillman shows off his vocal range throughout. These two tracks are important, again because it shows Tillman has full confidence in his vocals now. No longer is he slouched hiding behind his guitar with meek vocals as he was earlier in his career. It's a great evolution to see. 

 

Songs I'd Recommend - "Three Sisters", "Diamondback", "Our Beloved Tyrant", "Madness on the Mountain" and "A Seat at the Table" 

Much of J. Tillman's music compared to Father John Misty is restraint. J. Tillman restrained his vocals, his melodies, his brilliant songwriting ability. It should be made clear, he was a young artist from Seattle when he started and to study all the J. Tillman work in succession is to study an artist discovering his likes and dislikes, his confidence, and his voice. I will once again say, it's not fair to compare Father John Misty to J. Tillman, because J. Tillman was self-restrained by the idea of being a singer/songwriter and what that meant, as well as his youth as an artist. To hear his evolution, with the culmination of Singing Ax is downright breathtaking from where he started. While I know there's a lot of Father John Misty fans out there, I think it's important to go back to his musical roots and see where this fantastic artist came from and how he developed into who he is, by letting himself go.  

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