Each year, just after the scalding convection oven summers of Tucson break, but before we drift into autumn—which is just “Summer Part 2” and, like most sequels, less intense—Tucson, AZ experiences an alternately gorgeous and terrifying series of rainstorms that soak the sandpapery Sonoran landscape. Monsoon season is responsible for the vast majority of Tucson’s annual precipitation, and the locals greet it with open arms, knowing that we will surely perish without it. We are running out of water. Monsoon season is essential to our survival.
Yet monsoon season is also an unpredictable destructive force that brings flash flooding, downed power lines, and inevitably dozens of stranded vehicles caught tempting fate near Tucson’s underpasses.
Monsoon season is simultaneously beautiful and humbling. It’s our annual reminder that we are all at the mercy of Mother Nature. She will save your life and tear it apart on a whim.
It took a band called Forest Fallows to accurately capture the essence of monsoon season.
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette, Vinyl LP
Mike Barnett and Alex Morton formed Forest Fallows as a side band for songs that didn’t fit into their main projects. As of this writing, Barnett serves as the frontman for Mute Swan, one of Tucson’s most popular psychedelic-influenced bands that has more than a few songs that compare favorably to Tame Impala or King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Their Locals Only set was among the highlights of the Matt Milner-hosted era on KXCI, Tucson’s listener-supported radio station.
Mute Swan shares a certain haziness with Forest Fallows, but Barnett’s songcraft truly shines alongside Morton’s folkier/poppier sensibilities. It’s as if the wooziness of a Kurt Vile record was superimposed on top of Real Estate’s jangly hooks.
It’s the kind of record that could have sold a few thousand copies in an era when people still regularly purchased physical media. With the right record label and promotional push, Forest Fallows could have earned a respectable font size on several summer festival lineups. As it stands, it’s a low key gem that will surprise crate-digging freaks who find themselves in Tucson-area record shops such as Wooden Tooth or Old Paint with cash to burn and curiosity to quench.
It’s also a record that almost never saw the light of day.
After finishing the bulk of the recording, Barnett and Morton hooked up with Mike Dixon of People In A Position to Know (PIAPTK) and Joyful Noise Recordings. In addition to his endlessly inventive forays into lathe cutting that test the boundaries of what a record can actually look/sound like (he has released recorded music on slabs of chocolate and tortillas), Dixon always keeps his ear to the ground for interesting songs to share with his friends. His mixtapes and PIAPTK samples are required listening, and his partnerships with countless local artists have generated compelling music packaged in the strangest ways. A scene the size of Tucson’s needs a few enterprising, hard-working people to keep the lifeblood pumping. We’re lucky to have Mike.
As fate would have it, Dixon lived next door to Barnett and Morton when they were laying down the demos for what would become their debut record At Home. Dixon offered to hook them up with distribution through Joyful Noise and help press 350 hand-stamped records on “Comfort Lime”-colored vinyl.
I was lucky enough to hear the record before it went through test pressing hell. Initial pressings were rejected no less than four times before the recording was finally reproduced at the proper speed. The initial run of colored vinyl wasn’t right, either. Dixon went back and forth with a Dallas pressing plant that shall remain nameless, as it had neither the time nor the inclination to give this album the respect it deserved.
Compact Disc (CD), Cassette, Vinyl LP
While At Home was floating in purgatory, my digital copy kept me company throughout the first half of 2015. Sam Fader, drummer for the late, lamented Wight Lhite, is Forest Fallows’s number one super fan; he told me that he was proud to live in a town and play in a scene that could produce a record like At Home. It’s a master class in how sequencing can enhance mood, as the fully-fleshed pop songs drift seamlessly into wordless instrumentals and back again into harmonies that could make one’s eyes well up involuntarily.
In June 2016, it appeared as if this record would finally exist in its physical form. No more test pressings. No more nightmarish phone calls with the pressing plant. No more problems. All that was left was some great music and green vinyl.
Monsoon season didn’t have any idea what Forest Fallows and Mike Dixon had gone through to make this record a reality. Monsoon season didn’t care about the year and a half of hassle and headache. Monsoon season just exists.
A summer storm hit PIAPTK’s headquarters—the “lathe cave”—with full force. A chunk of its roof became saturated and collapsed. Green vinyl, much like standard black vinyl, is vulnerable to overhead attacks from torrential rain and water-logged chunks of roofing. Only a handful of copies of the “Comfort Lime” survived. Tucson’s musical history is better for it.
Monsoons typically hit just before sundown during rush-hour traffic in order to wreak as much havoc as possible. It’s a calamitous cacophony of wind and water, swirling and slamming into sunbaked pavement. And just as quickly as it arrives, it fades into a gentle drizzle, almost as if it’s apologizing for breaking anything. When that drizzle coincides with a Sonoran sunset, I call it “monsoon twilight.” It’s the most beautiful thing in the world.
The next-to-last song on the vinyl edition of At Home is called “Lightly Down.” It’s the only song that sounds like monsoon twilight. These storms don’t end abruptly. They tail off. They let out a sigh of relief, almost to signify a sense of physical exhaustion after inflicting so much destruction—exactly like the opening vocal harmony on “Lightly Down.” After a few leftover sprinkles drop to the ground, the creosote bushes unleash their distinct after-rain smell, the clouds dissipate, and the remaining hour of sunlight slowly evaporates into a pink-and-purple sunset that hangs in the air like a painting. We all stop and stare, slack-jawed and awestruck. And then it’s gone. “Lightly Down,” with its gently ascending choruses and sparse arrangements, captures that beautiful stillness that exists between the storm and the darkness.
Everyone’s life has a small, scattered handful of perfect moments, when everything lines up as if it was part of a dream. Most of our lives are spent dodging the monsoon. It lets up often enough to deliver scattered moments of unshakable beauty. You just have to know when to look and when to listen.