Artists who let their streams of consciousness flood into their finished output wield either a millstone of grandiloquence or an undeniable charisma, a power to drag listeners out of their comfort zones and somehow manipulate their kicking and screaming to compliment the music like ambience from the studio. Rarely does such an ambitious scope have the immediate poignance required to shed the weight of the former; for a musician to assume his ideas of music either concord with or supersede his listeners' is more insulting and off-putting than charming. Chris Parrello and his band of misfit virtuosos dodge that anvil with a pop-minded approach to experimentation that is as inherent as it is unconscious. He rewards his listeners for patiently trudging along his miry trail of free jazz-inspired movements just in time for them not to desire one, making the sugar that much sweeter.
"My War" is that nectarous surprise. The album's second-to-last track is both outwardly percussive and strangely melodious, lacking only a timely gimmick to complete the perfect recipe for a Top 40 hit. The guitar's rhythmic pulse acts as a decoy while the drums stealthily leap from standard rhythm to beautifully bombastic free-form. Meanwhile, intermittent vocalist Karlie Bruce compounds layer upon authoritative layer, projecting an icily clear tone without compromising raw conviction. "My War" proves that Perrello's ears sometimes yearn for the same comfort and dependability for which lay ears pine, but not before testing his listeners' stamina for nearly a half-hour of unruly babble.
But Perrello punctuates the ungoverned movements with small sandbars of easy listening. "Broken Shell" and "She Laughs" maneuver unconventional chord changes to fit conventional ears, and not the other way around. Similarly, the seven-minute standout instrumental "In Spite Of You" begins and ends so indolently that an absurdist free-form movement juggernauts its way through soft-rock bookends nearly undetected.
Even with his bottomless bag of tricks, though, Parrello's music can certainly live or die with the listener's mood; his meandering licks and blunt, pastel-like tones would enhance a study session or R.E.M. sleep, but would probably slaughter the buzz of a party or a windows-down drive. So Things I Wonder may never be a perennial go-to record in your collection, but it's versatile enough to fill out almost any alternative niche your still-adolescent moods will try to stump you with.
Chris Parrello is playing the Lily Pad in Cambridge Feb. 4th.