Of books and covers


What: Fences, Photo Ops, I Love You Avalanche

When: 8 pm Thu., Jun. 6

Where: The Shakedown, 1212 N. State St.

Cost: $12-$14


Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Not long ago, I made the claim that I have looked at more band and musician photos than anyone alive. The statement was definitely hyperbolic—as is my wont—but a fair amount of my working life is spent sifting through and searching out music-related promotional material. As such, I have become decent at deciphering things about bands from their press photos alone.

For instance, discerning the genre of a musician is generally not so difficult. Guys with suspenders and girls with flowery dresses—probably something in the old-timey/bluegrass realm. Brooding beardy dudes clad in all black—metal band. If they’re standing in a forest—drone or stoner rock. Artfully tousled hair, pensive expression, thrift-store duds—indie music.

They say you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but most books I’ve seen tend to give a lot away up front. So it is with musician photos.

Until it isn’t.

I remember seeing photos of Christopher Mansfield, the Seattle-based musician known as Fences, before I ever heard his music. Owing to his wall-to-wall tattoos, including the ever-growing collection that adorns his face, unsmiling expression, intense gaze, beard and obvious lack of love for sitting for PR photos, it was easy to make the assumption he was a metal dude. His penchant for hats in the porkpie/fedora realm signaled a departure from heavy music; perhaps he was a metal dude acting on a long-held secret wish to make a foray into singer/songwriter territory.

Like I said, you can tell a lot from a promo shot. Except that I could not have been more wrong.

When I finally began exploring Mansfield’s music, I listened to song after song, my brain not quite believing what my ears were clearly telling me. The illustrated man with the unsmiling gaze actually pens pretty nuggets of indie pop. His music has far more in common with Death Cab for Cutie than it does with death metal.

When I picked myself up after being knocked over by that feather, I realized Mansfield’s songs weren’t just surprising, they were pretty damn good. He melds lively and often upbeat arrangements with starkly confessional lyrics to create music that can sound light but cuts deep. If his words are the medicine, then the music he sets them to is the spoonful of sugar that makes it all go down.

But I’m not the only one taken with Fences. Mansfield is in some pretty elite company when it comes to friends and musical co-conspirators from this region. Former Death Cab alum Chris Walla has lent his not-inconsiderable production skills to Mansfield’s work, and his ongoing collaboration with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis resulted in, among other things, the 2014 single “Arrows,” which hit the top spot on the Billboard Emerging Artists chart.

Lately, Mansfield has been in the studio recording Failure Scriptures, his latest full-length album, which is set for a June 21 release. Ahead of that date, he’s debuted a couple of songs, one of which, “A Mission,” lulls with almost hypnotic sounding music before the gut punch of such starkly honest lines as “Guess my drinking has become a form of religion. I pray to it nightly on knees like a devoted Christian” hits. He follows it in short order with “You are the river, but baby, you know I can’t swim” and somehow manages to make it all sound pretty and pensive rather than dark and depressing.

While Fences is Mansfield’s musical project, it also exists in the form of a full band. However, when he embarks on a short West Coast tour that will begin Thurs., June 6 at the Shakedown, he will leave the band behind in favor of playing solo acoustic shows, thus making good on at least one of my assumptions about his band photo. Something tells me this won’t be your standard-issue singer/songwriter outing though. Joining him will be Photo Ops, the alter ego of musician Terry Price, as well as I Love You Avalanche, the longtime musical project of Anna Arvan, who, like Mansfield, often plays with a band but will go solo for the night.

I don’t know that Fences has cured me of my proclivity for judging bands by their promo photos, but I do know that in Mansfield’s case, I’m glad I delved beyond the cover to read the book inside. Or, to put a finer point on it given his plentiful tattoos, I’m glad I looked at the pictures.

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