Bewitched by a Dark Muse

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By Antonia Santangelo

“You can smell your own kind from a mile away,” divulges Jeff Klein as he leans over a nearly empty cup of coffee in Rocco’s Pastry Shop on Bleeker Street. More than a scruffy-voiced singer-songwriter, Jeff Klein courageously sets love’s innermost secrets to music, with an uncensored lyrical style that shakes one’s sheets. It’s the afternoon following his performance opening up for Joseph Arthur at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. “We are definitely cut from the same cloth in a lot of ways, there are just people you meet and you have an immediate understanding of them, how they work, like even if you work differently, you still have the same work ethic and appreciation for certain things”.

He is talking about Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs/Twilight Singers fame, the co-producer along with Mike Napolitano (who has worked with Andrew Bird and Joseph Arthur among others) of his latest release, The Hustler, the follow-up to 2002’s shapely acoustic-guitar-flavored gem Everyone Loves a Winner. Klein’s new album showcases his raspy voice in a collection of shadowy soundtracks to lusty affairs and lonesome morning-after episodes. A truly organic production, the album evolved into its final state through a method of breaking down each song into its barest form and then building it up to a full, textured piece with various instrumental flavors. An intimate gathering of bittersweet, moody melodies with songwriting similarities to Matthew Ryan, Leonard Cohen, Ryan Adams and Nick Cave, the album shows Klein working with a greater level of layered musical arrangement without straying from the sound his fans have come to expect. The songs sway from delicate ballads to expansive full on pop-rock productions. Klein describes the album’s sessions as simply a collective approach by three likeminded but distinctive musicians. “It was just Greg, Mike and I hanging out for a few weeks, screwing around. We all have this point where we all connect, as far as our ideas and what we like. I think everyone respected and appreciated our different opinions—we all have different processes by which we go about recording songs, playing things, the way we hear things. And the mix of all three of them together made the record sound the way it does”

The Hustler was recorded over an about a month’s time in New Orleans on a suggestion from Dulli, an idea Klein is definitely thankful for. “Dulli said that this is where you need to make this record, and I took his word on it and he was right—New Orleans is so entrancing, so dark and evil, it’s great. There is so much culture and definitely a more respected history and so much decadence. People selling drugs, prostitutes, churches and porn shops—it was just a mix of everything, religion, voodoo and jazz. So much heritage, it’s hard to not just feel it”. A month before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, Klein celebrated the release of The Hustler there, a city that was ultimately the heart and soul of the recording.

Often Klein’s lyrics suggest a collection of cathartic confessions. For example, on the tragic “Pity” his smoky voice growls over synthetic electronic tinges, “Just breathe into my mouth / I can’t sleep alone without choking / Did you dream that you’d find your way out / Or did you think that I was only joking / When I said don’t leave”. In the title track, Klein references sensual encounters during dark, wandering nights: “My body is broken and my arms gone numb / she’s shaking her hips/ And promising she’ll make me cum / So I come.” Featuring romantic use of the rarely used guitar-organ, and quiet, reflective vocals, the song evokes dubious morals and shady pleasures sought from pure hunger.

Such breathless honesty is woven throughout the entire album, a work awash in a diverse bath of musical languages in part derived from Klein’s guests, such as Ani Difranco, who contributes vocals and guitar to “The Hustler”, “Pity”, “Stripped”. As Klein explains, “Difranco was in New Orleans and we had been hanging out a bunch. We have friends in common, and she was in the studio while we were recording and was like, ‘I hear a vocal thing here, a guitar thing here, do you mind if I try it?’ And I thought, Wow, that would be great. I think she is an amazing, amazing artist.”

Though the album bears the influence of others, at the bone it’s purely Jeff Klein and his ability to seduce. “The 19th Hole” definitely stands out, with its come-hither pacing and eloquent poetic form, while “Nearly Motionless”, “Suzanne” and “Stripped” are accessible, even friendly by Klein’s standards; their nimble, fluid melodies offer bright tonality even as they flirt with dark themes. “All I Want” leans into a slightly country breeze with a hint of trumpet, a soft sonic path to the gorgeous “Cobalt Hue”, a sweet-tempered ballad that features piano, string arrangements and a slew of background vocals. Klein’s adeptness at changing his inflection and adding effects and ethereal nuances keeps things interesting, especially on the ghostly closer, “Nobody’s Favorite Girl”, with its whispery grace and subdued guitar and mellotron.

As for his live show, it doesn’t matter if he is joined by a band (what he prefers), one other musician or solely aided by the glimmer of a dim stage light. Klein mesmerizes the instant he comes into view, his eyes framed by chaotic dark hair. A provocative and instinctive performer, he rarely looks at the audience (he claims he usually “zones out on the exit sign”) and he doesn’t use a set list. He plays only what he feels like offering at the time. And as his entire body moves with each note, he seems to relive the memories that inspired the emotions captured in his songs. He explains that he doesn’t want to be a straitlaced coffeehouse singer-songwriter type: “If I am doing a solo show, I want it to be full as possible. I have a vision of what I want my solo shows to be like, but I don’t think I have actually gotten to that yet. It is something I keep working out. I want to make it even more dynamic, break things up. When you are just a guy on a guitar doing it solo, it’s easy to make all the songs sound the same after a while” But nothing about his eclectic new work can be called safe. Klein demonstrates he is definitely not content with a reiteration of Everyone Loves a Winner.. Edgier and even more atmospheric,The Hustler proves Jeff Klein is challenging himself to remain an unpredictable artist.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/klein-jeff-051111/