Long before the endless summers and shiftless skateboarders of today’s Santa Cruz, the central coast of California was a pretty desperate place. Demoralized Chinese servants, insane whores, down-on-their luck farmers… these folks populated small towns like Salinas and Aptos, and formed John Steinbeck’s rotating cast of characters. Steinbeck’s work, in turn, is the basis for the new collection of songs from Jon Bernson’s “musical fiction” band Ray’s Vast Basement.
Commissioned by the Actor’s Theatre of San Francisco to create original songs for their production of Of Mice and Men, Ray’s Vast Basement expanded the task and filled an album with songs inspired by the Steinbeck canon. It’s a big task for a small local band to undertake (even one that’s brought in Decemberists bassist Nate Query as a guest artist). Though Starvation Under Orange Trees has glimmers of the creativity and empathy that made the books great, the album as a whole is plodding and preachy, of interest only to Steinbeck devotees and Sufjan Stevens fans who can’t wait until he gets around to creating his soundtrack for the Golden State.
The first song on the album, “Salinas River Theme”, is a prologue of sorts; an instrumental piece featuring mandolin, slide guitar and piano that perfectly creates the dreamy, nostalgic atmosphere of the album. After that, the songs break apart and focus primarily on vignettes by and about Steinbeck’s characters, or specific interludes in the books. This makes a lot of sense: it’s easier to tell one person’s story than it is an entire era’s, and makes for a more engaging and satisfying experience for the listener.
Of course, some of these vignettes are more successful than others. Taking its influence from Steinbeck’s 1935 work, Tortilla Flat, “Danny’s Party” is a raucous 30 seconds of bottle blowing, hand clapping, and cornet playing. It leads into album highlight, “How Through Sacrifice Danny’s Friends Gave a Party”, with more hand clapping, whistling, and a jaunty outro vocal that sounds fresh as a Pacific Ocean breeze. It’s a rare glimpse of joy in an album that is, as a whole, unremittingly dour.
Steinbeck’s work was Serious Literature, but there were always moments of humor to lighten the load (Tom Joad would have crashed the Model T long before they hit California if it had been otherwise). Bernson’s voice might be partly to blame; it’s a gravelly, lazy baritone that doesn’t exactly lend itself to making merry and drowning sorrows. In “The Story of Lee”, a chorus of grating, chanting female voices is added to Bernson’s lead vocal, making an unremarkable song downright annoying. “Work Song” is appropriately named, as a whispered vocal over dreary guitars and a labored drumbeat is work to listen to. “Tall Bob Smoke”, a character study about another Tortilla Flat denizen, picks up the pace a bit but brings in another out-of-tune chorus, an embarrassing, unfortunate musical trick that occurs with disturbing regularity in Ray’s Vast Basement. The rest of the album passes in a dreamy stupor; if there is nothing too aurally assaultive, neither is there anything of much musical import.
Listening to the songs back-to-back, it’s hard not to think of how much the proper theatre setting would improve them. Starvation Under Orange Trees is thin and unbelievable on its own, but would fill out on stage with interaction from actors and an audience willing to suspend disbelief (and any music critic impulses they may have). It’s not hard to imagine actually enjoying the songs quite a bit as musical interludes in an evening of Steinbeck theatre, but no home mood lighting is atmospheric enough to disguise the flaws of this album.