Robbie Robertson coined a phrase in an interview once, and it stuck with me. He said that even though he’d written many types of songs, the ones that always got to him and stayed with him were, if I recall correctly, “skin creepers.”
A skin creeper is a song that may or may not have a hard-core hook yet gets inside your head and stays there; it captures a mood that infects the listener on a personal level. Mystery, emotion, and a definite sense of being “haunted” all typify the skin-creeper ethic. It dawned on me that few songs of this nature actually become hits, because at first blush they can make you feel a little uncomfortable, which was the first thing I felt a few years ago when listening to the songs on Carptree’s Man Made Machine (2005), their third release but the first with U.S. distribution.
The Swedish duo of Niclas Flinck (vocals) and Carl Westholm (keyboards) mine many different aspects of music: a progressive edge, a gothic touch, a metal bite, and a pop sensibility. Music critics love to throw around the word “texture,” usually as a description of a performance that deviates from standard chords and phrasing. That may be true of Carptree as well, but Flinck’s vocals, whispered and sometimes slightly hissed, and Westholm’s insistence on embracing synthetic sounds in the forefront rather than burying them behind traditional ones (besides the piano, which often does take precedence) attempt something a little more “felt” and a little less “heard.” Essentially, Man Made Machine has great, eerie skin-creeping moments in spades.
What the album didn’t have in 2005 was support from Carptree’s label, Inside Out Music, a full-on prog-rock company. New releases that featured Dream Theater-like prog metal and Yes-style pomp epics got the lion’s share of push at the time, while Carptree receded into the background.
For their fourth release, Insekt (2007), Carptree returned to their self-distributed label, Fosfor Creation, ensuring that their new American fans would have to work hard to find the album. It was partially a good sign but possibly a bad one Á¢€” good because Carptree had retained control of their unique musical vision, bad because that vision may have been altered due to the band losing the oft-perceived “brass ring” of U.S. distribution.
I shouldn’t have worried Á¢€” just reading the song titles made me feel I was in good company. The opener, “Taxonomic Days,” rolls from an almost orchestral sweep into an intimate vocal/chime duet, then morphs into a minidirge, then crashes into a quasi-metallic chorus. That description may translate as “weird for weird’s sake,” but it works perfectly in Carptree’s quantum-theory reality.
“Pressure,” the fourth track, is a relentless stomp, a headbanger relying on those aforementioned textures instead of a simple bludgeoning guitar; Flinck’s singing would seem inappropriate in any other band’s version of the song. Key word: singing. Something this steadily aggressive, albeit methodical and with a slow tempo, would ordinarily burst into howls and screams, guttural Cookie Monster growls and tension release, but that’s not the point here. The song’s called “Pressure,” after all. Insekt closes with the airy, early-Peter-Gabriel-sounding “Stressless”: the escalating anxiety Carptree has created has finally faded away.
So where does the second track, “Mashed Potato Mountain Man,” fit in? For that matter, what the hell does “Mashed Potato Mountain Man” mean? Don’t look to the lyrics, where the title isn’t mentioned, not even once. What the lyrics do allude to is a sense of isolation from the world and the inhabitants therein, and a longing for something else to make sense of it all: “I was never good with people / I can’t read the signs / Don’t seem to have the proper tools,” and “On a planet such as this one / I turn to a cold and silent space for any sign of life / What does this say about me?” No potatoes in there. No mountains. Just a maladjusted soul looking to the stars to find his normality, one that earth has denied him.
Then it all made sense Á¢€” Roy Neary.
Recall the famous scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) in which Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss, appears to be going crazy. He’s told his family he’s seen a UFO, but they don’t believe him. He’s having visions of a mysterious mountain. He’s playing with his food at the dinner table, plopping mounds of mashed potatoes on his plate and sculpting them into the strange shape of the mountain.
There we are.
The beauty of the lyrical bent is that the song’s not about Close Encounters at all. The title “Mashed Potato Mountain Man” is simply an allusion, a puzzle piece initially presented as the entire image. If you’ve never seen CE3K, it doesn’t matter a whit: the lyrics are mostly about feeling like an alien in one’s own world. With only that limited amount of information, the song is just a beautiful/strange tune with a bizarre title. But when it erupts in sci-fi synths and a thundering double-bass drum gallop, with occasional choir background vocals and melodic moments tied tight to aggressive ones, especially the lengthy instrumental close, “Mashed Potato Mountain Man” definitely becomes a “skin creeper,” a tune you may shirk from at first but will find yourself inexorably drawn to later.
Mashed Potato Mountain Man