Tacoma Park | Friday, May 26, 8 p.m. | Shadowbox Studio, Durham
On its surface, Tacoma Park’s second, self-titled record is simply a chance to lose yourself in a soft, green world where guitar tones drift and delicate analog synth timbres flourish endlessly. Though the album feels huge and fills two LPs, it barely tops an hour, and it’s divided into digestible songs, each with its own contour of space and weight of emotion.
In the first, the synths embellish a hypnotically switching acoustic guitar line, a harmonic field slowly lensing into a high, whistling lead. The second song bounces off a short, rubbery loop and into the shoegaze stratosphere. The third asks how many licks it would take to get to an electro-pop surprise in the center of Terry Riley’s “In C.” The way these complex musical shapes interlock is a shadow of the story beneath the surface—a story about how the complex shapes of people can make apparent opposites fit together.
There are a few guests on the record: John Crouch adds drums both rock and abstract to several tracks; Justin Blatt added violin and viola to the pastoral fantasy “Medicine”; Judy Woodall contributed some electric guitar. But Tacoma Park is primarily the duo of Benjamin Felton and John Harrison, both at least two decades deep in the Triangle music scene.
Felton moved to Chapel Hill after college, about 20 years ago, and joined the great Durham glam-punk band Jett Rink, which left behind one EP and many memories of riotous shows. A big part of their appeal was Mike Walters’s analog synths, still a daring novelty to indie rockers, though Felton was strictly a guitarist then. Later, he joined Pegasus and started a solo guitar-looping project, Blood Revenge, edging toward the large canvases he and Harrison stretch out now. These days, he also plays bass with Shark Quest whenever that Chapel Hill dynasty cranks up.
Harrison came from Wilmington in the late 1990s with a band whose name—Emily’s Porch—a period-piece scriptwriter could hardly top. He soon started drumming and sampling in The Comas, perhaps one of the last local bands to enjoy a good old-fashioned wining and dining before file sharing hit big labels hard.
He also started his own lengthy run as a singer, songwriter, and guitarist in North Elementary, though now he tends to focus on his looser, freer catchall project, jphono1. He’s a general all-star contributor to and champion of local bands as a cofounder of the label Potluck Foundation.
Felton, who teaches eighth-grade social studies, makes the more studious impression of the two. He’s the one who has collected the desirable synths, the Moog Grandmother and the Arturia MiniBrute, that have accreted on the duo’s foundation of improvised guitar, and he has more of the music-nerd influences that the record indicates.
It’s very much in the line of Harmonia and Cluster, who contrasted the driving, motorized beat of 1970s German experimental rock with more organic-feeling forms of electronic propulsion.
Harrison works in grant management at UNC-Chapel Hill and has ripened into a Jerry Garcia–like visage and vibe. (He loves The Grateful Dead and mentioned them first among his influences in our group interview.) He discusses the music in wandering, laid-back lines, in contrast to Felton’s more cerebral spirals. Harrison is a prolific painter who says he’d quit music for it if he were a better capitalist. But he’s growing a little weary of his trademark astronauts and has been drawn to abstraction lately, as Tacoma Park might imply.
“We were kindred spirits,” Felton says of their bond, which began with a debut album in 2020, “and had some things to learn from each other.”
But however convenient it would be to cast Felton as Apollo and Harrison as Dionysus, each has elements of the other. Felton creates the videos that encase Tacoma Park’s live show in their own pocket dimension of motion and light.
“Not everybody gets fired up on a Friday night to hear two guys play a D for 20 minutes,” Felton says. “The video makes it a more accessible experience.”
And Harrison has a knack for bringing big ideas to practical conclusions. Felton remembers once wanting to keep recording the same 50-minute take until they got it just right.
“Sure, we could do that,” he remembers Harrison saying in his kindly way. “But we could also just think of it as songs.”
In its most intimate texture, Tacoma Park emerges from the circumstances of an organic friendship, a safe space to try new things, whether it’s performing live with synthesizers or producing the album themselves, with Nick Petersen mastering.
“This was all new and exciting for me, but it feels really natural and normal now,” Harrison says. “I joke with Ben that us going to a bar together is probably as good as practice. It’s about spending time together and getting into that mental space. It’s nice to be able to just hand something over with complete trust.”
The new record was made by passing bits of music back and forth from their respective studios during the pandemic, building and recomposing, editing and adding even more effects, then paring everything back with sculptural intention. The excised work and thought still crackles in the negative space.
Whoever began a given song was responsible for its edit, and each wrote the titles for the other’s tracks, blurring the lines of authorship.
Whoever began a given song was responsible for its edit, and each wrote the titles for the other’s tracks, blurring the lines of authorship. They approached the attractive collage on the album’s cover in the same way, trading it back and forth until opposites refracted into a peaceful, harmonious whole.
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