If you’re not deeply embedded in Austin’s music scene, the title of now LA-based (possibly?) Fragile Gang’s new album may be a little confusing. It’s easy to grasp that For Esme is a work lovingly built for a fallen peer, a la Earlimart’s Elliott Smith tribute in all but name Treble and Tremble. But Smith was a widely known indie music figure and Esme Barrera was a beloved local icon who worked tirelessly behind the scenes, whether through non-profits like Girls Rock Austin or by just being a generally uplifting figure to local musicians. If Smith remains a songwriter that scores of fans feel like they own through his songs, Barrera remains a secret taken from her community far too soon and so it’s only right that Fragile Gang would pay tribute with a collection of songs that feels similarly secretive, tough but emotional and sweet.
That contradictory sweet and sour nature is well represented in early standout “Helicopters,” which features cooing, near wordless melodies over the top of Matt Schmitz’s pummeling drums and Aisling Cormack’s off-kilter guitar. The song doesn’t have a structure so much as it communicates the conflicting nature of loss, how we veer between emotional extremes and grieve in ways that are predictably unpredictable. On the other side of the coin is “Just Want to Dance with You,” which makes its intent and mood clear from the title, emphasizing a need to not think about tomorrow and instead hone in on a gratifying moment. With “Just Want to Dance with You,” the band asks that you celebrate your loved ones by remembering spontaneous good times, ignoring the trap of worrying about embarrassment and just shaking it without getting self-conscious. There are uplifting violins and waltzing beats but Arlo Klahr’s David Berman-like delivery is the real star, charming in its ramshackle tones, a weird kind of beautiful when paired with Cormack’s powerful, reassuring countermelody.
Klahr has a gift for making potentially sappy platitudes like “You are My Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” seem painfully true, not unlike a friend who knows exactly what to say to lift your spirits. In “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” that comes with the backing of heaps of shoegazy guitars and cymbal heavy drumming, forcing his monotone delivery to shoot through the mix with unexpected potency. There’s a different mood when Cormack is allowed to take lead, though, particularly on more sparsely arranged tracks like “Persistent Sorrow.” Nowhere near as melodramatic as its name might indicate, “Persistent Sorrow” instead finds beauty in the acceptance of grief, channeling downtempo, alt-country inflected influences like Lambchop, complete with delicately picked mandolin and a hiccupy rhythm section. The song eventually builds to a high range crescendo as Cormack shifts from a near spoken word delivery to a gorgeously elongated chorus, asking “Do you feel strange?”
But Klahr and Cormack are at their best when they’re joined together, like the dual leading vocals of “Wild Life.” Over musical backing recalling classic UK indie acts, “Wild Life” finds Klahr setting up the scene in the early verses before Cormack moves in to sweeten his delivery and then shift up to higher registers as the band leads into the chorus. The song is already pretty bassy, which lets Klahr augment the low end while Cormack’s vocal is free to keep the treble zone to itself. The band pulls off a similar track in “Twilight Land” except it’s flipped, with Cormack starting the verses before Klahr joins her, boosting the low end for the much sparser song. “Twilight Land” has the feel of mid-period Low, both in its slow pace and its minimalism, the guitar reduced to gently plucked single notes appearing mostly in-between the peaks of the vocals. It’s a song where not much happens but is all the more gorgeous for it, a refreshing juxtaposition to the kitchen sink approach Fragile Gang take on many of their other songs.
“Twilight Land” also helps portray the complicated nature of the album’s tribute subject, and its placement between “Helicopters” and “You Are My Rock’n’Roll Star” serves as a reminder that memorializing a loved one doesn’t mean you can only focus on one aspect of their personality or experiences, that the best tributes are the ones that attempt to show as many facets of someone’s life as possible. Grief isn’t just about mourning a loss, it’s about reconciling the fact that someone is no longer physically here with the fact that their memories will never go away and with For Esme, Fragile Gang have done a masterful job translating their memories of Esme Barrera for people who never had the opportunity to know her. By attempting to do justice to the memory of their friend, Fragile Gang have given others a chance to fall in love with Esme.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover