While the COVID-19 quarantine has pretty much killed the live music business, it has only served to radically stimulate every idle musician’s appetite to record. One of the more interesting ventures to come out of this deluge, in concept and sound, is a Hudson Valley-birthed one, The Seed Project.
The Seed Project was initiated by Kingston drummer/songwriter, Sammi Niss, as a way to stay musically and socially engaged through the COVID-19 lockdown. Last winter, Niss landed a coveted gig as the new touring drummer for indie darlings Real Estate. But by early spring, their entire year of booked shows had been cancelled and, like musicians everywhere, she had lost her livelihood, purpose and primary mode of human contact.
With too much time on her hands and a multitude of beats and melodies dancing in her head, Niss recruited five bandmates and friends—all veteran songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and home-recordists— for a new D.I.Y. project. Her musical partners came from area bands including Frankie and His Fingers, Battle Ave., The Sweet Clementines and Hiding Behind Sound, most of which are associated with SubFamily Records. This label is a tiny but critically-mighty Hudson Valley collective founded by Niss, Frank McGinnis and John Burdick, one that has issued 10 long players since 2017.
The idea was to generate new songs and audio works collaboratively and serially, in the vein of the drawing game Exquisite Corpse. One person would begin a “seed,” which could be anything from a drum beat or guitar riff to a complete song demo. The seed would then advance, by random selection, through all six home studios, before returning to the seeder for mixing and finalization.
Sometimes the projects progressed predictably. A song lacking bass would get a bass part and a conventional rock arrangement would fall into place. At other times, incongruous elements derail the expected path, with choirs, full-on electro-meltdowns and audio manipulations performed by one member upon the contribution of the another.
“The whole thing turned out super interesting, more so than I might’ve expected,” said Niss. “There are some real classic good songs here, of no one genre really. There’s also some experimental art-splats and some really weird shit!”
To me, it sounds a little like each of us, but not a lot like any of us,” added John Burdick, guitarist with The Sweet Clementines and Old 97’s frontman and fellow New Paltzer Rhett Miller. “The process took on a life of its own, a new songwriting voice in which we were all kind of equally powerless.”
“The year 2021 will probably go down as a kind of baby boom for new music and records,” continued Burdick. “Our SubFamily Records family is kicking it off with this huge pile of curiosities, soon to be followed by great new records from Frankie and His Fingers and Battle Ave.”
The Seed Project is a sprawling audio adventure serving up 24 tracks, spanning a host of moods and styles. It was written, performed, and recorded by Sammi Niss, Frank McGinnis, Adam Stoutenburgh, Jesse Alexander, Pete Naddeo and John Burdick.
The album kicks off with the Elliot Smith-like “Needle in the Hen’s Teeth.” This is a Naddeo-seeded track that typifies the pure pop sensibility that runs through most of the tunes here, even when they dress them in a little Apples, in Stereo-like low-fi weirdness.
Things get more experimental on the following number, by Burdick, “That’s A Very Fine Example of a Metaphor, Child.” It begins with ghostly vocal humming, leading into a whirl of reverb-free distorted guitars, analog synth swirls and a burbling bass sequence. This is all before getting to the actual meat of the song, its delightfully detuned vocals that enter about two-thirds of the way in.
Most of the grooves provided here by drummer Niss, on tunes like “Backhand Slice” and “Double Swish,” are reminiscent of her new band, Real Estate. They are light, sleepy and strangely peaceful for something born during these crazy quarantine times. All the songs here are complemented with smart arrangements and instrumentation, especially the wonderful guitar textures provided by Naddeo, Alexander, Stoutenburgh, Burdick and Niss herself.
One of my faves is “Michigan.” It unfolds with some backwards acoustic guitar, which jump-cuts to some furious strumming and offbeat drum accents for the main body of the song. The track’s highlight is Naddeo’s Robert Fripp toned lead guitar, which dances a bit like Fripp’s own on Brian Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire.”
There are some straight-ahead radio-friendly tunes like “CompliKate” and “Rough Quotation,” which owe a bit to the Velvets and Luna. Also radio-friendly, in a decidedly alternative rock way, is “Seedling 1,” a reverb-laden, glacial-paced entry that sounds like a Mazzy Star outtake. On the McGinnis- inspired “State Seltzer,” we get a disco beat and electro percussion, all dressed with some sweet noise guitar, as Niss recites Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs & Ham. And, far more bizarre, the main riff/refrain is strangely reminiscent of the theme song to The Cosby Show!
The Alexander-led “Richard, Lost in a Long Song” is a bit of waltz time weirdness, a spoken word fable of some otherworldly sort, with dulcimer, toy piano and “synthy stuff.” It’s something that kind of brings to mind the playful weirdness of “Mount Vernon and Fairway,” the Brian Wilson fable from the Beach Boy’s classic Holland album. Another standout is “Mary Heart in a Martha World,” one of the more fully realized and arranged tracks here, a stately ballad with some lovely harmony guitars and vocals from Burdick.
The collective even dips into pure instrumental textures with the somnambulant, Stoutenburgh-seeded “Nadir,” the driving “Pop Discreet” and the electronica noise and rhythmic breakdowns of the album closer, “Oby Award.”
The Seed Project is a strangely unified creation for one crafted by six different minds and musical sensibilities, working in six different locations. What’s most delightful is its looseness, the pure sense of play in it, the alchemy when musicians are closely listening to and complementing each other. It’s an album chockful of memorable melodies, killer hooks and textured detours, where the experimentations always complements and never overtakes the song.