Rocketship Park draws its name from a playground in the hometown of creator Josh Kaufman. It’s an appropriate metaphor for an artist whose music balances bittersweet reflection with a hopeful childlike wonder. At some point we realize that we’re too big to fit through the mouth of the rocket shaped slide but, with luck, we never forget how much fun it used to be. Kaufman remembers and conveys that in the music on his new album, Cakes & Cookies. Here too, we get a convenient metaphor. The album entices the sweet-toothed listener with a cover illustration of the eponymous delectables and a unique promotional offer-each copy purchased comes with a free homemade cookie! While one must never judge an album on the dessert, here it provides a taste of the contents. Rocketship Park’s original blend of symphonic folk-pop is rich, immediate, and above all, homemade. NPR noted that it offers “a sense of peace and nostalgia that grounds even the most anxious of listeners.”
Rocketship Park is the main creative outlet for Kaufman, a Brooklyn-based instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter, producer, and pá¢tissier. Kaufman has been an invisible force in the scene for several years. His talents as a side-man and producer have brought him to the stage and the studio with the likes of Dawn Landes, Caithlin de Marrais, The National, Josh Ritter, Yellowbirds, Balthrop Alabama, and Higgins. He has also collaborated with previously featured artists Benji Cossa and the Unsacred Hearts. Kaufman seems at ease in the limelight, though, and the new album reveals that his most impressive talents may be compositional.
A-Side “Swan” is a small masterpiece-a warm and comfortable track with the potential to provoke a profound emotional response. One would not often use the term epic to describe a two-minute composition but it’s the only appropriate term here. The track begins with a simple but powerful chord progression that swells with each successive repetition. “Swan” reaches phenomenal heights, but it never loses the stable foundation on which it is based. With the heart of a folk ballad, it remains sincere and straightforward. Acoustic guitar and banjo dominate the mix, while innumerable textures flesh out the rough edges with a lush background ambiance. The brass arrangements, subtle and beautiful, are responsible for much of the effect, with contributions to harmonic depth that makes the simple composition glow. Lyrics prove to be another focal point. The track revolves around a single phrase:
I tried to see him, but he was halfway gone. Just a battered bird now, he used to be a strong, strong swan.
The sentimental image evokes a sense of loss that darkens the euphoria of the instrumentals. The words don’t sink in when they are first stated, but they become more and more powerful with each repetition. On one level, they suggest a cynical reversal of the ugly duckling’s maturation into an elegant swan. But I suspect that the message is not just cynicism. Kaufman’s choice to ruminate on the line-rather than to bury it behind more words-emphasizes its emotional weight. When I reflect upon the image, I do not feel duped by an empty metaphor but, rather, privy to an intimate and heartfelt confession.
B-Side “See You” takes the same essential ingredients and draws them out over a much longer span. Kaufman delights us again with a simple chord progression full of harmonic momentum. The dominant hook is the falsetto vocal line that delineates verses as an interlude. However, Kaufman remains a compositional minimalist, and lets the track unfold at a leisurely pace. When the layers of horns, washed out guitars, and noises finally escalate, they seem like a meditation on the words themselves. Although the song clocks in at nearly five minutes, it seems to bypass time altogether. The loops continue to weave on in our sub subconscious even after the music itself has faded out.
Cakes & Cookies marks a slight shift in process since Off & Away, the artist’s debut album released in 2007. Rocketship Park has downsized from a band to a solo initiative. In some senses, the shift is just semantic. Kaufman has always been the main impetus behind the project, and even the material on the new album includes important contributions from guests-most notably, Dawn Landes, Bryan Devendorf, Travis Harrison, and Nate Martinez. Some of these musicians also appeared on the artist’s debut. However, Rocketship Park has coalesced primarily around the visions and efforts of Kaufman. In another recent review, I noted the Toronto-based artist Del Bel’s evolution from a one-man studio project to a twelve-member collective posed to take the stage. Rocketship Park has headed in the reverse direction. Kaufman never lost his original vision of a grand, symphonic sound, with rich layers and textures. Nevertheless, the intimate atmosphere of the studio seems to have meshed well with the individual and reflective nature of the music. Kaufman uses a lot of overdubs, but it’s not about the overdubs. He employs them as a means rather than an end, to emphasize compositions that remain simple and personal at the core. Even when I listen to these multilayered recordings, I can’t shake the feeling that Kaufman is seated over in the corner of the room, strumming a battered acoustic and singing his lyrics directly at me.
A homemade cookie has universal appeal. However, it’s also a nice gesture that illustrates the very essence of Rocketship Park. In an age where most people get their music on the internet, the artist becomes distanced from the listener. This is true of double-platinum mainstream artists and obscure independent artists alike. But the cookie is a solution-it’s a warm personal touch in a cold digital era. I feel pretty much the same way about RocketshipPark. Kaufman’s music doesn’t merely satisfy your sweet-tooth, but also resonates on a deeper level. You’ll find yourself drawn to it for the same reasons you favor your grandmother’s recipe over the store-bought brand. The ingredients are preservative free, and they’re baked with undeniable love.
https://ampeater.s3.amazonaws.com/aem138/02 See You.mp3