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Separation Anxiety

Jason McCue’s PANGAEA shows great promise for the up-and-coming indie folk star

Jason McCue mixes personal and universal songwriting to stunning effect. Photo credit: Facebook

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When I was first becoming aware of singer-songwriters' individual perspectives and modes of expression, my preferences began to lie in two diametrically opposed camps: the personal and the universal. In more specific terms, I gravitated towards artists who were all about bearing their souls and presenting a persona that was as close to their real identity as possible. Here, we have artists like Conor Oberst, Elliott Smith, and Ezra Furman; poetic expression is utilized in these people's music, but always in service of expressing something close to their real thoughts and feelings. On the other side, I was drawn to the wide-eyed wanderers who think in cosmic terms, like Wayne Coyne, Isaac Brock, and Jeff Mangum; autobiographical elements work their way into the lyrics, but there's always a bigger picture in play.

In truth, though, the closer we get to the center of this Venn diagram, the more rewarding the music is. When the Flaming Lips stunningly married their awestruck psychedelic visions with achingly heartfelt proclamations of love and togetherness on The Soft Bulletin, or when Ezra Furman framed his coming out as a story of angels on the run with Transangelic Exodus -- these were times when the two sides I had seen as oppositional came crashing into one. 

Jason McCue, though only recently making a name for himself in the Seattle music scene, is remarkably advanced in finding this sweet spot. His most recent album, PANGAEA, is an excellent entry into the new singer-songwriter canon. Weaving a light thematic through-line, PANGAEA explores McCue's feelings of unease at the notion of growing up, growing apart from the reliability he'd come to know, and finding disconnection with his past. Much of this is expressed with a shading of scientific, geological, historical allusions. As the name implies, McCue is evoking Earth's early life of one giant continent, suggesting that nothing can truly last forever before separating and changing for good. In tone, McCue approaches these topics with both anxiety and calm acceptance. At heart, though, it seems like there's only one way to interpret songs with titles like "War!", "The Events Following the Permian Extinction," and "Fault Lines."

Musically, McCue feints toward the hushed, Elliott Smith-esque sound that's become so familiar in indie folk and singer-songwriter circles, on album opener "Another Time." It's not long into the song, though, before a widescreen lushness takes over. McCue gained attention as just a guy and a guitar, though he's since begun incorporating a full band. As a vocalist, McCue knows when to surf on sweetness, and when to ratchet up the nervous energy and scratchy yelps; he seems to have an innate sense for when he's in danger of verging on tweeness, responding appropriately by veering off into full-throated emotion. On songs like the aforementioned "Fault Lines," McCue finds the kind of lo-fi, pop-minded inventiveness of groups like Islands, progressing through movements in ways that don't quite feel organic, but still stun with a sort of itchy compositional verve.

Seattle's battle of the bands at MoPOP, known as Sound Off!, was where McCue really started gaining traction after landing in first place. That was just a year ago, with PANGAEA being released this past March. That's a hell of a trajectory that McCue's on, and when you consider that he's still just 21 years old, there's no telling where his career will go. With auspicious beginnings like this, it feels like he's got great things ahead of him. No matter what happens, though, it feels like wonder and self-reflection are two of the first things success can rob of someone; McCue would do well to hold those qualities tight.

JASON MCCUE, all ages, w/ Lofi Legs, Cozy Slippers, 8 p.m., Friday, July 6, Cascadia Brewing Co., 211 4th Ave. E., Olympia, $5-$10, 360.943.2337,

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