- J. Dylan White
Album Review: Thomas Charlie Pedersen - 'Employees Must Wash Hands'
A musical artist imitating or replicating a style of music from a bygone era is a classic concept that is often the launchpad for new ideas. Channeling an antiquated style, innovating upon it and making it accessible to contemporary audiences, on the other hand, requires unique talent and vision on the artist’s part.
Borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the aptly titled “Employees Must Wash Hands,” by Thomas Charlie Pedersen, is able to encapsulate a style of indie folk-rock not prominent since the 1970s in a masterful way, while delving into the inner thoughts of Pedersen’s mind during pandemic lockdowns.
Recorded from February to September 2021, Pedersen considers “Employees” a foil to another album he recorded in 2021, “Funhouse Mirror,” with his brother Daniel (who also appears on and helped produce "Employees") for the two-piece band Vinyl Floor.
Pedersen’s third solo album features a calmer, introspective and contemplative nature compared to “Funhouse Mirror,” while also creating a fuller band dynamic than his previous two outings.
The 15 tracks on “Employees Must Wash Hands” deal with spirituality and humanity's conflict with God, isolation, self-doubt and Pedersen’s other COVID-19 musings in a tight 36-minute package.
Most tracks on the album are like quick expressions of thought, usually wrapping up in two minutes or less, so the risk of a song overstaying its welcome is quite low; the opposite, rather, appears more likely.
The tone and aesthetic of most songs on the record fit comfortably with indie bands like The Lemon Twigs, Foxygen, Drugdealer or even Fleet Foxes, all chasing a vintage rock sound common more than four decades ago.
“Yesterdays and Silly Ways” opens the record with a light-hearted saunter with a darker meaning beneath the major chords and soloing synthetic instrumentation. The evidence of coronavirus rears its head with the line “Your concrete walls proceed to retain a lonesome feeling / Yesterday and silly ways.”
“Oh, Whatever” shifts gears slightly to a harmonic waltz and brush snare shuffle reminiscent of the style contemporarily popularized by groups like Lord Huron. The inklings of the ideation of God’s thoughts appear here, as the speaker laments that “all [the speaker’s] children do is lying / And denying every clue,” perhaps imagining God viewing the ways people explain, but don’t acknowledge, his existence. “Slow Passage” immediately follows, and it continues a similar musical vein acting as a bookend for the opening of “Employees.”
“Rains on Saturn” provides a stark change of pace and is more experimental than the tracks appearing before it. The main accompaniment to the central vocal melody is primarily a lone piano and sounds effects or sound clips. The chord changes in the song create a sense of suspense, and Pedersen’s vocal styling changes to a solemn, deep timbre lacking the choral backing present until this point.
“Rains on Saturn” is the first track to clock over three minutes, and “Coarse Rasp of Yore” continues this trend with another slower-paced piece, with the soft drumkit and acoustic guitar making a return for a tale of a harmful but irresistible relationship.
“Mass in D Minor” has a definitive tonal shift into darker territory, opening with the declaration, “I’ve become a regiment of drugs, booze and cigarettes / My smile’s just a cry in disguise.” With careful listening, some qualities faintly hearkening to The Animals’ version of “House of the Rising Sun” can be picked out with the rising and falling vocal line. A booming bass drum provides a finality to the woes of the singer.
“Fiddler and the Travesty” returns to the path “Rains” and “Coarse Rasp” had been treading shortly before, but feels more substantial in its weight, impact and composition. Themes of mortality and morality come into play, and some of Pedersen’s best vocal work makes its appearance here and is allowed to shine with simple, sparse backing keys, strings and vocals.
“You Can’t Have It Both Ways” and “Sooner Than You Think” provide thematic continuity to the concepts for “Fiddler,” but pick up the pace from the previous section of the album, with “Sooner” bearing a grittier edge tip-toeing toward garage rock.
“Tremble and Reel” and “Night of Stars” make up a short duo of songs, each under two minutes, with the latter being the more dynamic and soulful of the two. “Tremble” suffers from being paired with “Night of Stars,” and doesn’t quite set itself apart in a way that prevents it from being pushed to the backburner.
“Organ Prayer (in E Flat)” is one of the most surprising tracks on the album, with an unexpected amount of direct angst and vitriol directed at a single individual, all in the styling of a church hymnal. It’s one of the guilty pleasures of “Employees,” allowing a free flow of anger and passion, especially with Pedersen crooning, “Tell your lame friends to screw themselves.” Although only 1:46, it is a blast to piece together the meaning on the initial listen.
“Worry Beads” is a pleasant acoustic experience that most directly deals with the coronavirus pandemic and the fear of the unknown many felt at its onset. In the opening lines, Pedersen sings, “When isolation comes and the scare is real / The desperate hands upraised, too many to heal,” touching on the desperation and panic instilled in many people’s hearts during quarantine.
“Beach in Vietnam” provides a 46-second, single lyrical stanza interlude into “Stagnant Pools of Sorrow,” the instrumental conclusion to the album comprised of a peaceful and touching combination of piano and strings.
“Employees Must Wash Hands” is a unique collection of ideas that were created under circumstances that played a direct role in their subject matter and composition. Within the first multiple tracks, a listener should be able to determine whether the album is to their taste as the roadmap is clear and is not strayed from often.
Pedersen captures a manner of composition and sonic creation that is growing in popularity and notoriety as it is reminiscent of the forebears of the genre he is cutting his teeth in all while maintaining a whimsicality in the tunes that make them a pleasure to experience. “Employees Must Wash Hands” requires an open mind to approach, with more beneath the surface to dig into and truly appreciate, and becomes a trove replete with small treasures to discover.