Singer-songwriter Paco Cathcart taps into mysticism on his newest release as the Cradle, something fantastical, folky, and intensely imaginative.
Bag of Holding tells a hundred stories, like the loving little scraps that make up the whole of a quilt. It feels, by design, both small and large, crafted by the intensely imaginative Brooklyn native Paco Cathcart who works under the name the Cradle. Across 30 Bandcamp releases (some of which are incognito poetry collections), the Cradle has shapeshifted many times—from scuzzy tape disturbances to serene, skeletal folk songs, each often grounded by a guitar—resulting in a vast and disparate self-recorded collection. If diving into such an output seems too daunting, have no fear: Bag of Holding, is his most ambitious, accessible, and accomplished songwriting yet. It is not a patchwork in the sense that sounds or styles are fused together but in that it weaves together many lives and observations into one cohesive whole.
Cathcart’s poetic ruminations do not adhere to traditional song structures and there’s nary a proper chorus here. His songs are tugged along by a faithful acoustic guitar undercurrent and a voice that offers the gentle security of a weighted blanket. Cathcart spins sprawling, meticulous stories with recurring motifs (uncertain futures, miscommunication, our increasingly unrecognizable world) while inspecting small, everyday details. It’s an approach that neatly coheres to the record’s title, which is a reference to a Dungeons & Dragons accessory that magically expands to hold items larger than itself; the grand and the miniature can take up the same space and be appreciated equally. It’s not as if Cathcart is a nitty-gritty obsessive like Balzac, but when he picks apart, say, a seemingly mundane encounter at the 7-Eleven as he does on “A Thought That Deletes,” he allows the potential for transcendence. Rather than brushing off a “case of mistaken identity,” the clerk is truly distressed by the encounter. Though Cathcart delivers the saga in the same steady tone as usual, the orchestration turns just slightly darker, and occurrence is transformed into a situation that will keep you up at night.
Bag of Holding’s greatest shift from earlier Cradle releases is its focus on guest contributions. Here, string and woodwind arrangements composed by longtime Cradle collaborator Sammy Weissberg compliment Cathcart’s intricate fingerpicking, and the three members of experimental punk band Palberta (whose records he has engineered) provide delicate backing vocals. Like Phil Elverum as the Microphones, pairing lush instrumentation with the humble imperfections of an analog recorder can give even the most humdrum of happenings cosmic degrees of emotional significance. On the glorious “Cell Games and Beyond,” Cathcart’s romantic anxieties are punctuated by sudden surges of clarinet and swooning harmonies. As a minor D&D infraction spirals into the decision to join a priesthood in Peru on the title track, a cello and violin saw away in the background creating a well-intentioned but ominous scene. On as Cathcart sings about losing control of his mind and body on “Rememerer’s Heaven” as bulbous strings rudely interrupting his idyllic guitar.
The tendency to attribute power to fate floats through the Cradle’s work, most notably in a series called “The Opposite Way,” which began on 2017’s Little Missionaries. On “The Opposite Way Pt. 3,” the protagonist traverses classic American landscapes dotted with rundown silos and gas station signs. It’s the type of image typical of folk music, but the saga sounds rich with the addition of violins. Closing track “St. Pete Station” contains the hallucinatory drama typical of a Safdie brothers film: a chance meeting with a stranger turns into a story of synthetic drugs, incarceration, and ends with an odd proverb: “What can’t you buy a kid online? Her first fish.” Such is the mysticism of the Cradle: folksy, vaguely fantastical, and so dedicated to the hidden potential of the ordinary that at times it feels surreal.
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