by Delia Rainey (@hellodeliaaaaa)
The Lentils’ latest album blasts out a beginning with busted horns, humming chugging bass and a trickle of a guitar chord, asking: “What good is memory? And why do words have no taste?”
Luke Csehak, writer, singer, instrumentalist, and producer of the album Budget Alchemy and the band The Lentils, seems to be having a crisis on the usefulness of language. His fondness for words and his troubles with them (“the words fail every time”) are articulated clearly and strangely throughout the album, proving his point. It’s the repeated thought of collaged sounds and clinging melodies (memories) that hold these words together in this dizzying and special collection – an experimental album that immediately feels colorful in anti-seriousness, yet deeply moving with soulful layers.
Now based out of Los Angeles, Luke Csehak is the main creator of The Lentils, which began in 2014 in Brattleboro, Vermont. Csehak’s former band, psych-pop collective Happy Jawbone Family Band, also began in Vermont circa 2008. When I listen to Happy Jawbone’s music, or even just look at a press photo of the bunch of bandmates holding guitars and drums and a random glockenspiel, I’m taken back to the aughts through the early 2010s times of underground indie music – back when DIY touring and putting out music on the internet was truly exciting. The Lentils holds onto the freak-folk playfulness of these beginnings, while adding Csehak’s more grounded perspective of the contemporary world.
Budget Alchemy was released as a tape through Flower Sounds and as a limited edition of 27 LPs through Feeding Tube Records. Although sold out, the record label website reveals some of the handmade album art designs by Luke, unique to each LP. These random globby quilted creations pose similar to the album itself: collages of painted shapes, magazine cut-outs, ghostly chalk drawings, fabric slices, torn paper, and scratchy black ink.
The warbling and yearning vocals of Csehak scrawl around the album’s tracks like a drawing of thoughts. An especially infectious one, the second song “So Long Mr. and Mrs. Gravity” situates a helium twee melody like a blissful balloon. Guitar strumming verses alternate with the flutey parade and never-boring lyrics (“some crap about sports”).
Csehak writes his take on our age of over-critical coolness with “More Relevant Than Thou,” discussing techies, his friend group, emoticons, and how “all the culture wars are so sappy and chic”. Multiple guitars pluck like voices in a conversation echo chamber, and horns come in like an easy afternoon or another anxiety heat on language and current times.
While his lyrics are confidently funky (“I wish I was born a prune”), there’s always a sincere unsureness to Csehak’s poetics (“why does the sweetest fruit have the most confusing juice?”) There’s often compositions of long notes in unison like a grand band climbing a hill, but supposedly it’s only Csehak recording in his “tiny pink room.” In contrast, “My Shrines Uncounted” provides an accurate picture of a lone guitar player, with a single minute of folksy classical interlude. In this brief moment of strumming, he drops listeners off in a thinkspace of no language – like the desert, or overlooking the city.
“The Problem With Memory,” stating the album’s thesis in its title, arranges a ruminating clarinet or some kind of horn, reminiscent of Arthur Russell’s “Instrumentals”. With the snare monotone, Csehaks’ active mind toys around with how visions can be “the real thing” or pretend.
Budget Alchemy presents catchy, messy yet totally in-control music, like a demo that’s crystal clear. There’s lo-fi guitar scritches along deep bass blankets, there’s whistling saxophone breaks, some faraway bells and shakers – opposites attract, avant garde and pop song. Often The Lentils’ songs fall apart at the end, unraveling into real life’s chaos after a planned practical arrangement. Csehak confuses us when he confesses “I self-medicate with symbols, too,” or is it “cymbals,” or do I actually know exactly what he means?
In “Dark Days,” with its stoner psych chorus, the narrative verses hang like different pictures on a wall, vibrating with baritone. In total self awareness (“will I ever be kind?”), the song becomes an anthem for accepting these terrible times – “we’re living in dark days” repeats and repeats, until it’s a meaningless phrase.
As The Lentils’ clambering instruments pour out, like a meditative cyclical motion, I think about how our feelings are sometimes too enormous to be described. In the tale of “The Lizard’s Bride”s triumph, like a country song, Csehak punctuates his words to a crisp: “Can you see me through the mist?” The Lentils’ Budget Alchemy attests: even if the “taste” of memories seems false, we somehow trust their sweetness.