There's a self-conscious import to Uphollow's Ten Fingers, the unabashedly arty band's first release since Soundtrack to an Imaginary Life, a rock opera released in 1998. Guided by bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Ian O'Dougherty, the recording is a meta-musical that chronicles three characters in ten songs and clocks in at a tidy forty minutes. Movements in the characters' lives -- from youth to midlife to sad reflections in the final years -- are illustrated through a series of motifs that lap each other like waves. The sand and the sea, ripe peaches, distance and impermanence are among the images that pop up in the ten-song cyle.
But even without its conceptual context, Ten Fingers has an epic quality that has more to do with the songwriting than the narrative. It's a largely acoustic and quiet record that's totally devoid of excess, so tightly composed are its songs. The tracks are woven together by the strum of O'Dougherty's guitar: "Years Beginning," for example, slowly evolves into "Boys" -- but organically, like a plant flowering on a time-lapse film. O'Dougherty's vocals have a plaintive earnestness that recalls Jonathan Richman, Gordon Gano, Isaac Brock and even Lou Reed in an emotional moment, while bassist and longtime bandmate Whit Sibley's occasional backing vocals are like support beams for the songs' fragile construction. Elswewhere, Ian Cooke's talent on cello and percussion adds subtle shades of emotion and color to a work that is at once cerebral, emotional and totally listenable. (Uphollow releases Ten Fingers on Friday, April 18, at the Gothic Theatre, with Munly, the Lee Lewis Harlots and Black, Black Ocean. See www.uphollow.com.)