Jon DeRosa is a musical renaissance man. Known primarily for his synthpop/drone/ambient project Aarktica (which also covered Danzig), he’s had a troubadour country/folk group (Pale Horse and Rider), a gloomier folk group (Dead Leaves Rising) and sang on some of Stephin Merritt’s Showtunes. At first the latter might seem most relevant to his first LP under his own name, A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes, which was produced by Charles Newman, who has worked with the Magnetic Fields, and includes a song written by LD Beghtol, who sang on 69 Love Songs and wrote a 33 1/3 Series book about the album (to which DeRosa contributed a crossword puzzle – renaissance man, indeed!). A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes has cover art that’s somewhat reminiscent of the cover art for Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely (1959), and is a sophisticated pop record with strings and piano and more of a crooner’s vocal style than on DeRosa’s previous works. Really though, the Danzig and the post-punk and goth and ambient influences are all here still, just smoothed over into something which often resembles a late-night, cocktail-drinker’s moment of bittersweet reflection.
It’s also often a bright-in-tone, fresh-in-appearance collection of stirring and catchy pop songs. Look at a song like “Teenage Goths”, which bounces along with a sprightliness we’re not used to from DeRosa. At the same time, the song contains some serious existential pondering, unanswered prayers, along with its nostalgia for the past. On the whole, A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes falls somewhere between Jerome-Kern-type classic songcraft and the incisive, philosophical approach of his other work.
“Snow Coffin”, previously released on a like-minded EP, feels like it looks backwards not to Tin Pan Alley but to ‘80s or early ‘90s dreampop, as it tells an enigmatic story that could be Gothic horror tale or a war tale or a love story. “Ladies Who Love”, which starts off with sullen strings around the line, “Ladies should never fall in love / They become stars no one can reach”, ends quite spacey, disarming for the strangeness of the turn it takes. There’s a song about masculinity and hard work that sounds like it could come off a radio from the ‘40s or ‘50s (“True Men”). Its demeanor also keeps reminding me of the hardened characters in the bleak crime fiction from that same era that I read too much of (think David Goodis, Jim Thompson, etc.). That song sits comfortably on the album with a straightforward piano-ballad version of the 1983 song “Easter Parade” by the great atmospheric pop stylists the Blue Nile, a new version of the Aarktica song “Hollow Earth Theory” and at least one overt reference to ‘70s-era Lou Reed. So this is time-travelling, but it doesn’t feel like it. Rather he’s connecting the dots across the musical and cultural timeline, in the way most of our record collections do, while uniting it all into one compelling sound and feeling.
For all its sad loveliness, the album carries inside it a punk aversion to fluff and cliché, a leaning towards darkness and minimalism that might seem more rock than pop, along with its dreaming heart, that of a romantic, but perhaps a cynical one. A song like “Don’t Say Goodnight” is both something that could be in a Fred Astaire movie and an anti-sentimental argument for plainspoken-ness. In that way he’s embodying the romantic pop ballad form while subverting it. The song is also an exercise in space and air, illustrating the way wind can blow through a song and leave it open to possibility and mystery. The whole album is like this – not unfamiliar, but at the same time completely surprising and exciting.
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