Pile Driver is the fourth album by Matt Lorenz, who performs as the Suitcase Junket. A one-man band is not a rarity in the 21st century, when technology allows pretty much any dedicated musician and songwriter to record a bunch of different tracks on different instruments and mix it together into an album. But Lorenz is a true, old school one-man band. He does it all by himself, both live and in the studio. He’s also a junk collector who repurposes items to become his instruments, so much so that the only traditional instrument he uses is a beat-up guitar he found in a dumpster. The rest of his “pile” (hence the album title) includes a suitcase he sits on that also serves as his kick drum, a baby shoe hitting a gas can as a snare drum analogue, a circular saw blade that sounds like a boxing ring bell, and a hi-hat made from a box of silverware and 8mm film reel. This description sounds like a big mess, but it makes for a surprisingly cohesive sound.
This junkyard set up would be the most interesting thing about Lorenz if he didn’t have songwriting chops. Fortunately, Lorenz’s skills are considerable and the list of weird equipment operates mostly as an effective hook to bring in the curious. The album opens with a crashing guitar chord and the distorted buzz of Lorenz’s new (old) keyboard, a small (2 octave) ’90s-era castoff. Lorenz’s vocals take a backseat in the song as he howls in the background, far away from a microphone. Instead, the crunchy guitar riff dominates the song as the drums thump along. It’s an interesting start to the album, but the riff bears more than a passing similarity to ‘90s rockers Collective Soul’s debut hit, “Shine”. More effective is the second song, “Jackie”, a ‘50s-style boogie rocker underpinned by Lorenz’s chunky, buzzing guitar playing. Here Lorenz sings into the microphone, complaining “Jackie said everything is gonna be fine / But I got a feeling that my Jackie is lying / ‘Cause she’s done it before.” The lyrics feel era-appropriate with the style of the song, which makes the whole track a lot of fun.
Lorenz’s musical interests turn out to be as diverse as his instrument collection, and Pile Driver runs a wide gamut of styles over its 12 songs. “Swamp Chicken” is appropriately slow and bluesy, as Lorenz adopts a slurry drawl for his vocals. It’s also one of the few songs on the record with obvious overdubs, as fiddle and honky tonk piano fill out the sound. “Busted Gut” is laid back and folky, where singing and simple guitar finger picking take center stage and a strong, melodic refrain (“Got a busted gut / I can’t feel a thing”) dominates the song. “Ten Rivers” is also very folky, but it rolls along like a classic country road song as Lorenz sings about being “Ten rivers away from home.” The alternating kick-snare combo gives the song a lot of motion. The song also has a break featuring Lorenz’s unusual throat singing, a skill he developed himself that allows him to sing two sounds at once and he lets it resonate through the guitar, giving it eerie overtones.
The synth-driven power pop of the album’s single “Beta Star” may be its biggest departure. It features a simple, buzzing keyboard arpeggio and complements it with guitar chords, and has an intro that features more throat singing. Here that technique functions more like a keyboard melody on top of the arpeggio and it’s kind of fascinating to discover that it isn’t the synths at all. When Lorenz starts the lyrics, it’s possibly the catchiest verse melody on the album. He also adds subtle backing harmonies (in overdub) that just add to the hook. The chorus doesn’t quite live up to the earworm of the verses, but Lorenz sells it through his vocal energy, with a valuable background singing assist from his sister Kate that makes it a full three-part harmony.
Other highlights on Pile Driver include “Seed Your Dreams”, a quick, bluegrassy romp complete with lyrics that go so fast it’s difficult to make them out. “Mountain of Mind” is the album’s big rock moment, a song anchored by the crunchy guitar playing and intense vocals from Lorenz (with another assist from Kate). Here the subdued verses build perfectly to the loud, soaring chorus and an even better post-chorus filled with “Whoa oh oh”’s. The romantic closer “Red Flannel Rose” features some lyrical clichés: “There’s a spot in my heart where not much anything grows.” But Lorenz again makes good use of his vocal energy and even manages to garner a bit of sympathy from his chorus, “Everyone laughed at us / Like we were some kind of clowns / Everyone laughed at us / But they ain’t laughing now!”
The variety and songwriting are what make Pile Driver a thoroughly entertaining record. Lorenz manages to do a lot of different things with his set up and he does most of them well. His junkyard aesthetic, old-timey mustache, and performance uniform of red shirt and black and white polka dot tie make him easy to finger as an insufferable hipster. Fortunately he has the songs and skill to take him way beyond his basic appearance, and The Suitcase Junket is well worth listening to.
// Notes from the Road
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