[29 January 2014]
Music publicist and websites often use the acronym RIYL to push their artists. It stands for Recommended if You Like and is frequently employed in ridiculous ways, comparing any four piece rock group to the Beatles, female blues artist to Janis Joplin, or electronic band to Radiohead. The promotional download of this disc did not come with any information, but if it did, the material could honestly say “RIYL Leonard Cohen”. Howe Gelb’s vocal intonations, strange and poetic phraseology, and sparse sonic landscapes evoke comparisons to Cohen, which is high praise. Of course, the resemblances don’t work on every song as Gelb takes some radical turns into experimental jazz and country rock that recall Charles Mingus and Neil Young more than literary Cohen, but on the whole this is the best Leonard Cohen album by someone other than Cohen himself in decades.
Consider the opening track, “Vortexas”, which plays with the terms “vortex” and “Texas” that contains Cohenish references to barren landscapes, sex, religion, and personal relationships in a twister-like logic of the heart. The buzzes come from cicada and the high costs of desert living means the price of human connections. Gelb sings with a flat tone that gives his metronomic cadences a deadpan humor and duets with possibly the only musician with less expressiveness in his voice than himself, Bonnie Prince Billy. The effect is hallucinatory, like the mirages in the desert the song evokes, and contains elements of black humor at his personal expense—again in a Cohen-ish self-depreciatory manner.
Or there’s the mostly spoken word duet with KT Tunstall, “The 3 Deaths of Lucky”, that shuffles along at a languid pace frequently associated with Canadian singer songwriter. Gelb lets the contrast between his coarse throatiness and Turnstall’s sweetness make him seem more experienced and worldly, while the lyrics suggest the opposite is true. Again, this is a Cohen-like trope, but after all, while the connections to Cohen are verifiable, they are not what make this album special. In fact, as the disc’s title suggests, it may only be a coincidence.
Gelb is ably assisted by guitarist M. Ward, former Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley, and other luminaries that provide a shifting sense of time behind his piano playing. They do not play all together as much as altogether; the music is loose more than tight and that’s on purpose. The shagginess provides room for one to ponder just what Gelb is singing about during his philosophic musings. With lines such as, “Can you conceive of the perpetual / Will you take your leave of the eventual”, “Daylight comes in like a freight / Rolls over some / No matter how long / Your dark art creates”, and “When I was a child / My daddy taught me / How to steer with my knee”, one goes on some extended twisted lyrical journeys only to end up at a question mark.
But the words are just part of the story, as best evidenced by the instrumental “Instigated Chimes” that ends the record. Gelb plays his piano notes in groups. The tempo changes and thanks to the bass behind him even starts to swing, before coming back to a more reflective and somber sensibility. There’s a sense of randomness more than order until after almost three minutes, Gelb just sort of lets things fade out. It’s not that there’s no order, just that the details are more important than the larger picture and the frame which holds it, a useful metaphor for understanding what Gelb does even on the songs with words. The artistry is in the particulars.