From its title to its cover art to its production, “Whale Songs for Beginners” is a quirky little record. As it happens, it’s also a good record, with a heartfelt earnestness that belies its DIY aesthetic.

Using folk, traditional country and even good old-fashioned garage rock, Nathaniel T. Lesser has crafted an album that may not be polished enough for the mainstream, but definitely conveys a sincerity and lyrical richness sorely lacking in much of today’s popular music.

Lesser is the quintessential one-man band, playing all the instruments, writing and singing all the songs and producing the album. And though the production at times definitely falls under the category of lo-fi, it lends a certain charm and authenticity to the music that might have been lost under the gloss of a more polished production job. And, for the most part, everything is where it should be in the mix, with vocals and guitar right up front.

Opening track “Rusted Swingsets” starts off as a folksy, singer-songwriter composition, driven by a delicate vocal and gently strummed acoustic guitar. A bit of organ provides atmosphere. An abrupt tempo change at the halfway mark turns the song into more of a country western tune, the jangly guitars and faster tempo contrasting with lyrics of regret and images of “rusted swing sets on unmowed lawns.”

“Dead Man’s Clothes” is one of the more unusual songs on the album. It’s an exotic blend of blues and surf rock, featuring a terrific bass line and a muffled/filtered vocal effect. This one has a sort of swampy, southern gothic feel to it as Lesser meditates on the spiritual versus the physical with lines about walking with the Holy Ghost, wrestling with angels and “weary faces in despair.”

“Antidote” finds Lesser in alt-country mode and features a great guitar solo. The layered “A Cold Day in Hell” sees Lesser playing several instruments, including harmonica, guitar and a muted bass drum. “Mark in the Middle East” is an instrumental track, boasting another infectious bass line.


The standout track on the album is “Fort Gorges,” named for the abandoned military fort in Casco Bay. Starting off in traditional folk mode with a plaintive vocal over acoustic guitar, this song also features Lesser singing echoey counterpoint vocals over a gentle accordion. Compared to some of the other tracks, the arrangement is sparse and simple, but the emotional impact is powerful, with Lesser singing sad but beautiful lyrics about crumbling walls, ghosts left behind and a “white, torn, tattered flag” waving “half in relief, and half in despair.”

Like a jaunty Jewish folk song, “Roots Remain” comes as a welcome, toe-tapping respite after the emotional heft of “Fort Gorges.”

Then, much to the listener’s surprise, considering the acoustic nature of the seven previous tracks, the album climaxes with a rocking little number called “Permanent Record.” With clanging electric guitars and simple but steady drums that sound like they were recorded in a garage, this a catchy, punky song with a hooky chorus that embraces down and dirty rock ’n’ roll with joyous abandon.

“Whale Songs for Beginners” may seem unusual and raw on the first listen. But sometimes the best records are those that don’t give up their charms right away. Open-minded listeners will find themselves drawn again and again to these songs, exploring forgotten roads with Nathaniel T. Lester, stopping now and again to ponder those spaces “between the ecosystems and industrial parks.” The production may be lo-fi, but the emotions come through crystal clear.

Stream the album for free at Lesser has also set up a “name your own price” option when it comes to buying the album. Good work deserves to be rewarded, so if you decide to buy one or all of these tracks, be generous.

Rick Johnson is a freelance writer and radio host from Westbrook. He can be reached at:

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: