Cyclops Reap is the 5th full-length album Tim Presley has released as White Fence since 2010. It was first conceived as a collection of oddities and outtakes that had previously slipped through the cracks, but quickly turned into a set of almost completely new material when Presley realized he just couldn’t stop himself from obsessively recording more songs. At this stage, it’s become clear that he’s part of the Syd Barrett/Chris Knox lineage of songwriters, one that defies the idea of measuring progress in any typical, logical way.
Aside from a few details– the glimmer of bent guitar notes that jewel “To the Boy I Jumped In Hemlock Alley,” the surprisingly smooth vocals on the dreamier tracks – this sonic blueprint of self-recorded psych hasn’t changed much over the years. But those of us who have so far been transfixed by the slow growth of one man’s personal rabbit hole will only be further hypnotized by Presley’s will to keep burrowing inward, perfectly oblivious to the trends developing outside of his four walls.
And if there’s one way Presley is clearly advancing as an artist, it’s through a heightened sense of self-awareness. From the succinct runtime to the absence of the kind of punk-informed songs that always felt a bit jarring on past albums, Cyclops Reap is the work of a songwriter who’s never been more in touch with his own strengths. Chief among these talents is a lyrical gift that’s been continually undervalued, probably even by Presley himself. The overall narratives of these songs may be hazy as ever, but taken as free-associative word paintings, they’re more realized than anything we’ve heard from White Fence yet.
“If you’re still living just to survive/I’m still the only man alive” is the kind of prismatic riddle that lesser disciples of Dylan might spend an entire career working toward. But Presley tosses the couplet rather heedlessly into “The Only Man Alive,” a tapestry of serpentine Cosmic American guitar twang. And it’s just this supreme, offhand cool that allows these lines to come across as cowboy kōans, riddles etched into sand just prior to being swallowed up by a dust storm.
Such tray bits of imaginative imagery, often perfectly divorced from reality, keep piling up throughout Cyclops Reap, from snake funerals to pink gorillas. Coupled with Presley’s uncanny ability to navigate through the quirks, limitations and serendipitous possibilities of 4-track recording, they can make you feel that you’ve been dropped into a random scene from a fully developed cinematic world, albeit one shot on super-8 film. When Presley sighs a line like “I want to live on Genevieve Street with you” over a composition that suggests a water- damaged Left Banke cassette, the results are strangely evocative; compressed, yes, but baroquely colored and full of real longing, too.
Sure, we’ve witnessed White Fence working in these modes before, but never with this much purpose and vision. “Beat,” a desert-stranded track rippling with peyote-nightmare reverberations, is sort of like a three-minute summation of David Crosby’s awe-inspiringly strung-out, post-‘60s hangover epic If I Could Only Remember My Name. And while somebody else already dreamed up the phrase “ghost of electricity,” that set of time worn syllables finds an awesomely visceral expression in the white heat of haunting, feedback-scorched pieces like “New Edinburgh” and “Chairs in the Dark.” Those two songs may be amongst the most violent entries in the White Fence canon, but the more subdued garage pop of “Trouble Is Trouble Never Seen” offers a glimpse into an alternate 1968, one where the Monkees and the Velvet Underground shared a practice space and ended up cutting some demos together. Meanwhile, “Make Them Dinner at Our Shoes,” wisely selected as the one previously recorded leftover to make it onto Cyclops Reap, nods toward the expanse of Love’s Forever Changes as it alternates between mod-ish bounce and folky, shifting-clouds majesty.
So let the Foxygens of the world continue to garner a truly head-scratching amount of hype by playing dress-up and applying some ‘90s-style disingenuousness to their ‘60s fetishism. A few years into the existence of White Fence, and it’s apparent that, aside from a scenario where this guy actually drains the world of its supply of blank 4-track tapes, nothing is going to keep him from marching on through his gradual (yet steady) evolution. And with each successive album feeling like a newly unearthed Nuggets volume, do we really want some kind of total artistic upheaval from today’s premiere bedroom-psych auteur? In this case, it’s probably best to just enjoy the blossoming of a few new links in White Fence’s ever-expanding daisy chain of a discography.