Like fellow Chicagoan Ryley Walker, J Fernandez finds his voice using decidedly ‘60s tools. Where Walker tapped into Astral Weeks folk, Fernandez’s debut, Many Levels of Laughter, fits bedroom pop into Krautrock grooves. Walker’s lyrics drip with pastoral romance, while Fernandez’s slip into heady interior streams of consciousness. Both luxuriate in open space, with jazz flourishes and airy psychedelia curling around their tight songs, though teaming with jazz musicians as Walker did on Primrose Green could have kept at bay this album’s occasional meandering feeling. But Fernandez is still a compelling presence, the kind of well-dressed guy you find in the corner of the party, and lean in to hear whatever he has to say, whether it’s about outer space or going to the dentist, just because he has his own way of saying it.
Fernandez’s debut shows a remarkable amount of personality and vision. He’s listed Carl Sagan as an inspiration, and the disorienting orbit of the recorder whistling throughout “Read My Mind” reflects that reach through space perfectly. His first line on the album (from the blithely thrumming “Between the Channels”) introduces his conflicted and witty persona succinctly: “I have no use for competition/ I lose a game as well as anyone/ Communication doesn’t matter/ Communication is a waste of time.”
Many Levels of Laughter was recorded in Fernandez’s apartment, with ramshackle gear and plenty of tape loops, but the songwriter used that homey warmth to his advantage, giving the songs a lived-in feel. If “Casual Encounter” was recorded in a bedroom, it’d have to be one decked out in shag carpet and mod furnishings, no iPhone charger in sight. The organ and saxophone in interlude “Filled With Joy” are borrowed from a cocktail party, but saddled with reverb and scattered amongst snare hits.
In a year that’s seen impressive statements from Chicago experimental songwriting auteurs like Walker and Circuit des Yeux’s Haley Fohr, Fernandez sneaks his name into the fold. At barely more than 30 minutes of lingering in spacey grooves, Many Levels of Laughter may not be as focused, but it certainly shows another intriguing, clever songwriter on the rise.
Essential Tracks: “Between the Channels”, “Read My Mind”, and “Casual Encounter”