Judging an Album by Its Cover
When I got my CD copy of Andy Friedman’s third album in the mail and ripped open the package, I have to admit I had a bit of a WTF moment. It was the cover art, you see. On it, our featured singer-songwriter poses with tussled hair, a shaggy beard and an almost stoned, deer-in-the-headlights look as he strums along on an acoustic guitar. His flannel shirt is sloppily unbuttoned to reveal a particularly hairy chest. Not exactly a flattering first impression to make. It turns out I wasn’t alone in my original assessment that this album looked to be the mark of an amateur, who didn’t quite grasp the concept of the term “vanity shot”. Over at Roughstock.com, a country music-related website, writer Stormy Lewis had this to say in his review of Laserbeams and Dreams: “Andy Friedman did not do himself any favors on the cover of his third studio album. ... [He looks] not unlike the suspect of the week on a CBS procedural. The title Laserbeams and Dreams is strange, and set the mood for a loop heavy dance album.” Agreed on all counts, especially, too, on the comment about the album title, which suggests something out of the Katy Perry songbook. I really thought to myself that this was gonna be one horrible CD to sit through, and was putting the spit and polish on that “1” rating before the disc hit my player. I guess I was surprised to find otherwise, though I’ll admit the album is musically unremarkable.
For those of you not in the know, and that’s probably a fair number of you, as he has a fairly tiny core fanbase, Friedman is a musician that many journalists and musicians publically revere. He quit his day job as an office assistant at The New Yorker to hit the road as a “sideshow poet” in 2002, and then made the transition to music in 2005. Not long after, he released Taken Man and the title track of that album cracked a New York Post Top 30 “Best Songs” list, nestled along such noted artists as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Andrew Bird, and the National. Not bad company to keep. His follow-up, Weary Things, made the Associated Press’s “Best Overlooked Albums of 2009” list. What’s more, indie-folk kid Sufjan Stevens has gushed that “I think the world of Andy Friedman. I’ve always wanted to be Andy Freidman.” A pretty bold statement, considering that I always wanted to be Sufjan Stevens. Well, at least before he largely dropped the banjo music from his repertoire.
Laserbeams and Dreams is about as caffeinated a country-cum-folk album as you’re going to hear. It was recorded in the period of just one day early last September, and that even included time spent mixing the album. (Bassist Stephan Crump mixed it as the performers went along, which probably wasn’t too hard, as the record is just Friedman’s voice, his guitar, some upright bass, and David Goodrich on lead guitar.) There is just one overdub on the album—some bottleneck guitar on the track “Old Pennsylvania”—which makes Laserbeams and Dreams a gloriously unvarnished affair. Friedman’s background as a poet is at the forefront, as he writes achingly profound lyrics to brooding country-folk numbers that put him almost in the same league as Tom Waits, Lou Reed, or Bob Dylan. Heck, Friedman even sounds like Reed at times on this disc, so the comparison isn’t entirely coincidental. There’s much here that you can sink your teeth into word-wise, with some deft imagery and narrative-like structures to these songs. The downside? Considering that the album is pretty much acoustic guitar and stand-up bass, there isn’t a lot of sonic dressing here, which sometimes makes Laserbeams and Dreams a little bit of a bore.
The album begins with “It’s Time for Church”, which combines the sacred with the secular. Friedman’s opening lines denounce organized religion in favor of pursuing art and drink: “It’s time for church / It’s five o’clock / Pour a drink / Let the record play / It’s time for worship / In a quiet place / Collect my tears / Listen to the sermon”. The song is a bit of dirge, but one that recalls the work of the late, great Johnny Cash. There are also some vivid pictures that Friedman paints here, noting that the sky is “Brooklyn Dodger blue”. Additionally, a cool bluesy swagger punctuates the song, thanks to some electric guitar bursts here and there, and it more or less sets the standard for what follows. Up next is “Motel on the Lake”, which is a soft and gentle number with shimmering guitar work in the background, one that references Dirty Dancing in its rendering of a once vibrant Catskill summer resort that is now crumbling and a shadow of its former self.
“Nothing with My Time” is where Friedman particularly apes Reed in his “I’m Waiting for the Man” phase, as he reaches down into the lower registers to reach into the barrel of ennui, noting that “I get a lot done when I’m drinking”. This is followed by the countrified “Old Pennsylvania”, which harkens back into the 1950s sound of Hank Williams, Sr., to deliver a tune that captures the banality of rural redneck life where “I gotta drive twenty-five miles just to get some milk / No aluminum siding, that’s not how this house was built”. By this point, though, you’re five tracks in and there’s no let up in the folksy country guitar work that Friedman and his cohorts brew up, making the album a bit languid. That changes a bit on the next song, “Roll On, John Herald”, which is a gritty bluesy number that is partially a tribute to the titular founding member of the late-‘50s bluegrass trio the Greenbriar Boys, who died of an apparent suicide in 2005. It’s more or less a detour in the sound of the rest of the album, which is monolithic in its acoustic nature.
There are setbacks to be found here as well. Friedman literally stumbles on the spoken word track “Schroon Lake”, and then gives up before the minute-and-a-half “song” transforms into unearthly radio static and fiddles before cutting out. Thus, it’s a little hard to see why he bothered to leave this mistake in the final product. Did he think it was endearing and charming? Maybe so, but it undermines his strengths as a poet and, truth be told, this dalliance just seems like mere filler as a result. “Pretty Great (Theme)” is another head scratcher as it is only 42 seconds long, and goes absolutely nowhere in that compact span of time. And while those are just tiny missteps on an album that is remarkably, well, overtly consistent in tone, the disc wouldn’t have suffered if they’d been snipped.
In the final analysis, Laserbeams and Dreams is the perfect mood piece to being alone in some dive, save for the bar staff, near closing time where they serve Pabst Blue Ribbon to truckers and not hipsters. I’m reminded of the soundtrack for The Last Picture Show, which featured a ton of old-timey fiddle and acoustic guitar music played in the background. This is sort of the same period that Friedman is shooting for, albeit with more folky and rockabilly touches than by writing outright heartbreaking country songs. Friedman has clearly struck a vibe that you can really roll around in and get dirty with, but it does get wearying after a while. There is very little sonic variation between the songs, aside from some really subtle coloring in places, such as what you hear on the driving “Roll On, John Herald”. This is quiet and barren music, reflecting the flat curve of the Earth that you’d find out on the prairie. It’s clear that Laserbeams and Dream is workman-like in its rendering, and Friedman clearly has some austere songwriting chops at the best of times, as well as a deft ear for words. However, whether or not you discover that by getting past the hideous cover art, my vote for the worst of 2011 so far, is another matter entirely.
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