Eyelids heavy and limbs fatigued, Doveman’s The Acrobat is a collection of funereal anti-pop songs that struggle to hold onto the nocturnal ambiguities of post-post-cocktail hours. The music is at the mercy of an unforgiving dawn, imminent and increasingly intense; in lopsided strides, it’s unavoidably swallowed up by sunrays and shadows. Doveman begrudgingly ushers in the brand new day.
Leading the procession is Thomas Bartlett, Doveman’s vocalist, pianist, and chief songwriter. A classical prodigy who quit high school to study in London, Bartlett relocated to New York City and quickly became a sought-after sideman for Chocolate Genius, Mike Doughty, and Miho Hatori (and, more recently, music columnist for Salon.com). Doveman affords Bartlett the muted spotlight as reluctant front man, a balladeer whose songs owe more to the atmospherics of jazz and ambient music than the structure of Tin Pan Alley. Bartlett’s band — banjoist Sam Amidon, drummer Dougie Bowne, violinist Jacob Danziger, and cornetist Peter Ecklund, who casts wisps of brass like Chet Baker on Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” — is disarmingly simple, elegant, and understated.
This simplicity, adopted in tandem with Bartlett’s minimalist songwriting, requires little life from the band. The players shift and intuit based on necessity alone, as if they all have one leg under the bed sheets and are anticipating an uncomfortable sleep. In the case of the two-chord vamp “Boy + Angel”, their approach loosely translates as a test of repetitive endurance, a circular stating and restating that chases its own tail inconclusively. Even when the band’s bloodshot improvisation betrays stability, as it does in the mid-tempo “Cities”, no instrumentalist steps over an invisible line of decency drawn in the sand.
The night owl weariness in Doveman’s music manifests itself in Bartlett’s withdrawn voice, which barely rises above a whisper. He’s cautious and unassuming, possessing all the intimacy of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan with none of the buoyancy. Splitting plain words like “honey” into two wilting syllables, Bartlett sings like he’s afraid of waking a slumbering body at his side. The effect is one of coy comfort, of dramas bled white and secrets shared in drowsy meditation.
His lyrics, on the other hand, while economical, can suggest dodgy subtexts beneath the music’s gentle sway. The demanding relationship at the center of “Honey” is alternately splintered and glued; after potentially resigning his feelings, Bartlett evokes a more desperate resolution: “You never saw me coming / Now I’m all you see / But if you felt like running now / You’ll find that you don’t run as fast as me.” A similar scenario surfaces in “Teacup”, a slo-mo gait with icy electric guitar lines, but this time the music seems to be marching to the same conclusion as Bartlett’s words: “So won’t you hold your tongue / Now hold your pretty lies / Why is there all this beauty / If all beauty dies?” The unusual instances of unconditional optimism — like the open arms invitation to “step inside this house, there’s room for all inside”, from “House” — add a spring to Doveman’s step, infecting the choruses with stronger melodies and the musicians with brighter prospects to strive towards.
While The Acrobat has its share of inspired moments — Bartlett’s aching piano solo in “Drinking”, Danziger’s layered strings in “Walk On”, the palpable regret and promise in “Dancing” — it labors around them with unsatisfying indifference. When you feel something unusual brewing in Doveman’s weary headspace, you root for the band to stay ensconced in the darkness or claw through to the light. Instead, The Acrobat resigns itself to a position in limbo, and the uncertainty is frustrating.