A Religious Experience
Pale Horse and Rider‘s These Are the New Good Times was recorded at the famed Sacred Heart Recording Studio in Duluth, Minnesota. Currently used as a community center, the building, a hundred-year-old decommissioned church with some of the spookiest architecture this side of the Bates Motel, has become renowned for its unique acoustics, including a four-second natural reverb, giving music recorded within its walls a layered, breathy quality. And, though it may be crammed full of instruments and recording devices, the church retains its stained glass windows, carved marble altar, pews, and balconies, making for an ethereal and beautiful scene to create in.
Pale Horse and Rider’s Jon DeRosa, responsible for writing the majority of the tracks on this, the band’s first full-length release, not only creates beneath the church’s towering ceilings, he seems to bring to life the spirits of its preachers long dead with a stark, yet scintillating vocal. He commands attention on his songs, each teeming with the kind of charred chagrin that only comes with self-awareness, worldliness, and the familiarity of repeated heartbreak.
Similarly to Chris Isaak and Randy Travis, DeRosa’s captivating vocal and attention to even the smallest detail in his writing make it hard not to fall into a trance when he’s singing. It’s hypnotic, calming, and soothing. DeRosa takes his time, keeping it slow and simple as his holy surrounds dictate mood, rarely rising above serious and gloomy.
DeRosa’s expert use of pacing and rhyme is evident on many of this album’s tracks, especially “Coney Island”, on which the singer takes the decidedly simple theme of one lover’s need and twirls his uncomplicated words around it to create a charming love song—“Darling skip out on your convention / I’m thinking my heart has got an infection / The only known cure is your affection / So whisper to me ‘neath the sun’s reflection”—that never feels forced or overwritten.
DeRosa again experiments with rhyme on “Stars”, only this time he removes himself from the kind of basic couplets used on “Coney Island”, delving into more serious territory. There’s a loneliness to the track, a desire to break out, to see a declining world through different eyes. DeRosa’s personal revelations—“Like a sick little kitten that can’t keep itself clean / Hiding in corridors since age 13 / Put such meticulous effort into not being seen”—speak volumes about his style, how comfortable he is with silences, with the staid grace of his performance. The song feels like a doorway into an Escher painting—surreal, contagious, dreamlike, and difficult to escape from.
DeRosa’s finest moment on the album, though, comes on “The Prettiest Girl I’ve Seen Tonight (So Far)”. “Walked in the bar / Looked ‘round for a place to stand / That’s when I saw you / Two rum and cokes in your hands”, he sings, in what is essentially a one night interlude with a woman that is so defining, so complete, that by the final chorus you’d think the new-found friends had known each other forever. Original, personal, and genuinely affecting, the song, strategically placed at the end of the CD for obvious “Holy shit, this album is amazing!” impact, shifts DeRosa into a category all his own when it comes to conveying truth in the moment.
With a great match of musicians to back him—Marc Gartman, Low’s Alan Sparhawk (who also produced), Flare’s Charles Newman and the Rivulets’ Nathan Amundson—DeRosa has created an album as uplifting as it is dangerously depressing. These Are the New Good Times is a masterwork of timing and precision, so carefully detailed, so utterly therapeutic, leaving the listener spellbound and aching (praying?) for more.