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Little Otik’s Existential Country Record

Dec. 5, 2012
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There are some records that have distinct seasonal feels. Slint’s Spiderland is reminiscent of an ominous fall evening, while Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising sounds like a red-hot summer day. Closer to home, Startled By His Own Tail, the debut album from Milwaukee’s Little Otik, has the feel of a claustrophobic Midwestern winter (in a good way). It is an inward-looking record, one that sounds both stark and lonely. Yet Startled By His Own Tail is also an emotionally rich album, one that adroitly touches upon such themes as loss, desperation and isolation in ways that provide valuable specificity to concepts often painted in overly broad strokes. It is an accomplished first record.

Little Otik is the brainchild of Daniel Bullock, front person for city favorite The Scarring Party. When that band decided to go on hiatus, Bullock realized he had accumulated a handful of songs that needed a proper home. “It’s never good to compartmentalize songs,” he notes, “but after a few years I had written some that I was fond of but couldn’t incorporate into The Scarring Party.” What was meant to be a break from performing turned into a moment to break in a new band. Or, as Bullock jokes, “even when we’re not making music, we’re still making music.”

At its core, Startled By His Own Tail has the feel of a country record. Bullock’s plaintive, less-than-secure vocals—he admits that, initially, “I was afraid of letting too many outsiders hear the material … there wasn’t much confidence in my voice”—are the perfect vehicle for Little Otik’s tales of woe. Songs such as “Not a Light for Miles,” “Darlene” and “And How” sound deliciously ragged as they chronicle a series of failed relationships and dead ends. The narrator of “And How,” for example, suffers from the standard country-music malady of “adolescent solipsism/mixed with nascent alcoholism,” while “Darlene” tells the story of forbidden teenage love, lust and pregnancy.

Yet Little Otik does its best to tweak such genre markers. “Country music,” says Bullock, “has constraints and conventions, but an artist needs to stake out what rules are followed, which are bent and which are broken.” Such a bending of the rules is most apparent on stand-out track “Heidegger Professes Undying Love to Kierkegaard.” The title alone suggests that this isn’t a Merle Haggard record, but Bullock uses this love story of sorts to explore the relationship between two philosophical giants. “Let’s discuss the possibility,” Bullock cheekily sings, “that precedes all possibility/just as being as a word/is a noun before it’s a verb.” It may, Bullock admits, “only resonate with a few people, but I’d prefer to seem clever to a few people than dull to the multitude.”

Such word play would seem precocious if it were not backed up by solid playing, but Startled By His Own Tail sounds great. Bullock relies upon the playing of Allen Coté (lap steel guitar) and Cathy Kolb (violin) flesh out his compositions, though there is never the feeling that the record belongs to anyone but Bullock, who played every other instrument on the album. “I’m far too lazy to be considered a megalomaniac,” he explains, “but I felt this intrinsic pressure to do as much as I could by myself.” Here’s hoping he has another album in him.

Startled By His Own Tail is available at littleotik.bandcamp.com.


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