Words by Aldus Santos

Following the rambling Poundian cantos of The Strangeness’ sublime Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky (2017), Francis Cabal was beside himself. With what, I’m not entirely clear. But I heard him speak of it, and I saw him launch it, and my guess is quiet pride. Perhaps accomplishment. The fear of the fabled barrel-scrape always looms, though. And there’s no shame in that, because even the greats suffer it. Repetition is indeed a pesky housefly in the house of the artist. But letting that overcome you without even a wee wiggle or a puny paddle? That’s just unacceptable. 

So in May of this year, right in the thick of this fucking Whatever This is Anymore, Cabal arrested that decline, putting out a solo single (“August 31” b/w “I am the Cosmos”), split alongside Dennis Litao in the No Face Records-released EP Ito Kami. His performances were spirited and echoed the best bits of his heroes (Big Star, Neutral Milk Hotel, mid-career Wilco): open, skeletal, transparent. Like campfire stuff. Or stuff you’d sing over the phone to a girl. 

Interestingly, he’s also shelving his Kidstuff moniker in favor of his birth-given name. “It’s easier to commit to something now that I’m using my name,” he tells TRIN, adding that the biographical nature of his newer stuff partly prompted the move. He knows that decision sounds weird—artists are, after all, wont to dissociate themselves when churning out personalia—but for this new thing I’m (eventually) going to discuss, the blows are cushioned because he’s not going at it alone.

“Keon is Laguna’s best-kept secret,” Francis says of his collaborator Keon, whom he first discovered through MySpace, when the latter was still in a band called Stigmatics. “[Hearing them] blew me away, and I’ve always wanted to work with him since,” he recalls. The man who answers to Grandi Oso is equally effusive about the Strangeness folkie. He talks of how he’s enlisted the guy for a full-band incarnation of Stigmatics, and how that, in turn, blossomed into a creative shorthand between them. “With Francis, references are […] part of our typical conversation. He just gets it ninety-nine percent of the time,” the producer says, explaining how largely nonmusical cues were thrown in during brainstorming for “Easier, Heavier”: Bukowski’s Post Office, Sartre’s Nausea, Sion Sono’s movie poster for Antiporno.  

I don’t know if those references do translate, but this first release is a curiosity that deserves further prodding. Taken in its most nuclear form, “Easier, Heavier” (out today, September 22, via Body Clock) is a bittersweet sliver of autobiography, pained but not hurting, and Francis sings it both as bereft son and wistful nomad. Grandi Oso, meanwhile, lives to up to the splendor imbued in his name: a trapeze-wire negotiation between transformation and invasion, between demonstrativeness and, well, overdoing it. 

There is an adorable levity to Keon’s largely digital instrumentation (and orchestration). It’s something I didn’t dig at first, because I felt it was hyper-ironically artificial, but now I appreciate it on its own: not as mere foil to Francis’ forthrightness, but as necessary dose of fortitude. When you get down to brass tacks, they’re really mirror spirits: backwards but reflective. “Francis sings about loss, grief, the mundanity of daily stuff, and just being human about these things. [He’s] like a more straightforward Oso,” Keon says of the pair’s dynamics. 

As for Cabal, he’s less form-bound than he usually is. Truth be told, “Easier, Heavier” edges away from Glen Campbell territory and closer to Harry Nilsson country: where brokenness sounds celebratory, where memory is not a halfway house but its own terrain, with an independent weather and its own flora and fauna. “[Para siyang] weird psychedelic-pop thing straight out of time, which is something I like,” he shares, adding, “Ang weird that a song partly about death made me feel better about writing it. And, actually, ‘yung arrangement ni Keon talaga was the missing piece.”

That, I think, is key here: It’s a collab built on trust; not democracy, not compromise. That’s courage. If all producers simply “vibed” everything out, there’d be no great records. If, say, the bookish George Martin didn’t put his foot down around pop’s most powerful quartet, there’d be no “Strawberry Fields Forever” or Pepper. But I digress. 

The best thing Keon could do to honor “Easier, Heavier” is to shepherd it to the Far Great Elsewhere, away from Cabal’s crutches and impulses. He should, in fact, mangle those crutches and impulses beyond recognition. And he did.       

Stream Easier, Heavier