Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby open their new album A Working Museum, their second proper album together, excluding a disc of covers, with “A Darker Shade of Brown”, a track that in title and in sonics recalls the rock of the 1970s. The track, however, doesn’t suggest an looking back. It’s an energetic number, bolstered by a rare third musician (drummer Chris Butler), with the refrain, “Let’s throw everything to the wind / Let’s dive in/ Let’s pretend that we can’t swim / LetIs drown.” There’s a manic side to the anthem, and it undercuts itself, but it succinctly captures what Eric and Rigby do on this album.
The eleven songs here sound both tossed off and ambitious. There’s a recklessness to the duo’s approach that keeps the music bounding and perpetually fresh, but the pair keeps enough control that the songs sound finished. They’re assertive but not overly raw. While each song sounds like the product of a quick recording of a freshly written piece, the album has a whole has a surprising sonic breadth. You can find snatches of ‘70s glam, Americana (“Rebel Girl Rebel Girl” could be a quality cut for Lucinda Williams), British invasion (think Zombies), ‘60s psychedelia, folk, and even more recent, dancier tones. “1983” sounds like at least 1987, which I still haven’t wrapped my mind around.
For all the variety in sound, the lyrics stay precise, and both artists excel at pinning down detail. The swirling opening of “Valley Liquors” amounts to a series of fitting examples, and it’s that accumulation of description and Rigby’s delivery that makes us care when we get to the “young guy with the Sanskrit tattoo” who talks “about a girl he knows” before we’re turned into the traffic around a shopping center. In these moments, the songwriters emphasize the writer part of that descriptor, matching careful observation with accurate revelation.
That skill has its greatest use in closing number “Do You Remember That”. The song, under Rigby’s vocal guidance, is so charming and captivating, that it almost doesn’t matter that it’s autobiographical. Putting it in that context adds to the joy, though, particularly when Rigby describes their first kiss and then acknowledges, “Okay I made that last part up,” before jumping us forward to a date with tea and guitar-playing. The song develops a series of small details that add up to something significant: “You changed my life in seconds flat / Do you remember that?” If the little moments are fun and charming (even when mixed with mistakes, lowered expectations, and professional incompatibility), they add up to the weight of life, and this duo have the skill to capture that heft while keeping things light.
As kinetic as it is grounded, A Working Museum might contain artifacts of an earlier time, but its work produces something new; it’s not history on display but the understanding of it. Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby have the right sensibility to track down the sorts of things that matter without making it sound quite that way. Experience tempers the brightness, but it’s all governed by a unique playfulness, which makes for a wonderful, if mobile, installation.