The sugar-sharp melodies come in a spree during singer-guitarist Fred Thomas’ great new song “Altar,” a concise little shot of curt, catchy guitar scraping and amiable boy-girl vocals. But the scenes and feelings he rifles through in the song’s lyrics are hardly as easy or comforting: “You can’t feel the damage ’til after it happens,” he laments. Thomas is singing about falling out with a group of friends in a very tight small-town community, giving you a sense that the tuneful speediness is more about condensing his pain down to something manageable, processing it as quickly as possible and then trying to move forward.
Thomas has been around since the Nineties, diligently working out of Michigan in bands like the relentlessly eclectic His Name Is Alive, Sixties-garage-pop idealists Saturday Looks Good To Me and the fine bubble-punk band Failed Flowers. His new solo album, Aftering, feels like a bit of a career capstone, channeling afflicted memory through static-cling guitars, painterly dissonance, keen literary observation and wide-eyed pop revelation. Fans of Wilco, Smog and Yo La Tengo should definitely put it on their “to check out soon” list. On “Altar,” he’s joined by Anna Burch, who played and sang alongside him in Failed Flowers and released a great album of her own, Quit the Curse, earlier this year. Her cheery voice is a balm, the sound of a friend who’s there to help him purge the past, so are the beaming, kiddy-prog synth streaks that forth toward the end to signal that “better days are on the way.” Even amidst crushing misery, there will always be good people and weird noise to pick us up.