Ian Cooke

Heartache still produces some of the finest art.

As time wore on, though, it became increasingly clear to everyone that Cooke needed to stretch his wings. Although he remained a de facto member of Uphollow, a couple of years ago he purchased a van and used that as home base while he began writing songs for The Fall I Fell. His primary company was his significant other: a cello he nicknamed "Roberta."

"When I was living in the van," he remembers, "I left it out of its case and realized that I had to be at work and I was late. So I freaked out and panicked and jumped in the front seat, not thinking about the cello being vulnerable. I started driving to work and had to slam on the brakes at a red light, and the cello case, which was standing up in the back of the van, fell on the cello and crushed it."

Cooke wound up replacing Roberta (not long after, his van was crushed, too). Personifying instruments isn't uncommon for musicians -- B.B. King has been naming his guitars Lucille since the '50s -- and often, the gear takes on a life of its own. "I always liked the cello because it was very much like a person," Cooke explains. "It's kind of the same size and shape as a human -- more than other instruments, anyway. It's supposed to be the instrument that sounds most like the human voice. I always liked that, thinking of it as almost alive, kind of like a puppet, I guess, where you can make it talk."

Ian Cooke looks like he's about to get another wild hair.
Ian Cooke looks like he's about to get another wild hair.

Oddly enough, Cooke has developed a unique, expressive vocalese that emulates the fluid modulations and tonality of a cello and incorporates some of its rhythmic inflections. If Sufjan Stevens had been weaned on nothing but recordings by Tchaikovsky, Mozart, Bach and "Eleanor Rigby," his take on chamber pop might sound something like Cooke's work. But as it stands, Cooke makes Stevens's elaborate compositions seem almost prosaic.

There's no shortage of highlights on Fell. "Music," the album opener, is superb; in it, Cooke declares that "music can make meaningless things seem so significant" in a voice that evokes the nasal timbre of a certain Muppet and with a melody that vaguely recalls Supertramp's "Logical Song." His Beatles-esque harmonies on "Vasoon" are mesmerizing, and on "Flood," Jme White's electro manipulation is eargasm-inducing, while the contributions from Fell's other players -- drummers Justin Ferreira and Sean Merrell, O'Dougherty on guitars and programming and violinist Kelly O'Dea -- are equally stellar.

The album's most dramatic and captivating moment, however, comes on "The Rot," which closes the disc. Over a driving beat, Cooke creates tension with a brooding cello line, then ardently repeats the refrain "Get out the rot, you've got to get steady/Get out, get out, get out." Uttering the phrase like some kind of mantra, his voice dripping with exasperation, it's as though he's summoning the will to overcome his heart-wrenching despair once and for all. Then suddenly, just past the halfway point, the clouds part. As the song quietly resolves to the original progression and melody of "Music," we listen as Cooke finally gains a sense of closure:

"I intend to demonstrate through this verse and dexterity/That it's not a choice to make, and either way, it aches the same/I never want to suffer this much again/So I'll sing and finish, and then I'll spread all the sounds, deliver them to everyone."

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