“There’s good kinds of growing,” Aaron Graves sings at the outset of My Bones Are Singing, Those Lavender Whales’ second full-length release. “But there’s also some really bad types of growing.”
Ain’t that the truth. In early 2014, doctors found in Graves’s brain an astrocytoma — a rare, cloudy and life-threatening brain tumor, one that would force him into an equally cloudy and life-threatening treatment. It’s hard not to hear the imprint of Graves’s struggle on My Bones Are Singing. The waves of distorted guitars and creaking strings on the wistful “How to Cook Everything”; the spectral, almost ghostly, background vocals that echo Graves’s assertion that “I can’t do this alone” on “Open Up” — My Bones Are Singing is clearly born from great struggle. And though Graves never references his cancer directly, his songs extend thematically, grappling with frustration with ever-decreasing time, questioning your place in the universe, and the possible nonexistence of spiritual authority in a capricious world. “Oh my god, I don’t know if I can handle this,” Graves sings on “Oh My God,” a fizzy pop song with a dark, fuzz bass-driven undercurrent of shaken faith. “Oh, my God, I don’t know if you exist.”
But, remember, too, that there are good types of growing: getting better as a person, recognizing your fragility, putting your trust and your faith in your community, getting through things together as friends and family. If the first half of My Bones Are Singing is marked by creeping doubt, the second half is distinguished by great hope and humility. He begins the "The Owl Called My Name" by banishing an owl — a metaphoric harbinger of ill omen — from sight before declaring his undying love for his friends. On “The Arms Of A Loving Community Around An Undeserving Individual,” Graves is humbled by the support his community gave him in his fight against cancer: “My friends circle ‘round each other when one is in need,” he sings.
Throughout the record, in the darkest spots and the brightest moments, though, Graves sticks to the central motif of his oeuvre as Those Lavender Whales, which he started in his college dorm room at the turn of the millennium: striving to be a better person. “I know it really hurts to grow,” Graves concedes on “Open Up,” before offering, “I know you’re taking us through rougher weather.”
My Bones Are Singing marks a considerable growth for Those Lavender Whales, too. Recorded with Chaz Bundick (Toro Y Moi) in Berkeley, California, and at Graves’s home in Columbia, South Carolina, My Bones Are Singing is full of bigger sounds and a broader palette that parallels the way this band’s world expanded suddenly in a period of rough weather with huge amounts of uncertainty and love. The personal songwriting, thoughtful arrangements and delightful quirkiness that Graves established on a handful of EPs and 2012’s Tomahawk of Praise remain, but Bundick’s production gives My Bones Are Singing an airiness imbued by stacks of vintage synthesizers and crisp production.
Indeed, Those Lavender Whales has grown physically as well, not into simply a fleshed-out band, but a full-fledged family. Jessica Bornick, Graves’s wife, plays drums. Multi-instrumentalists Christopher Gardner and Patrick Wall, two of Graves’s longtime friends, round out the band.
“I know that once my body passes on / My spirit will perceive these things I’m not yet meant to see / And that all of these things I’m in love with / One by one will peel away and then be taken off of me,” Graves sings near the end of My Bones Are Singing. It’s an uplifting end to a record marked by uncertainty and confusion. It’s a koan of acceptance, that all growth is worthwhile. There are good types of growing and there are bad types of growing. My Bones Are Singing exemplifies them.