In the dingy, hole-in-the-wall indie music haven that is Larimer Lounge in north Denver, surprises probably happen every other night. Most of the time, though, the bar's too crowded or too noisy or too full of "scenesters" to stand for long and those wonderful moments happen for only the patient few. But on one Sunday night this summer -- after the crowd for one of the first of three opening acts supporting the Fruit Bats had dissipated -- an unassuming bearded guy and his motley band took the stage, er, corner of the bar.
Ladies and gentleman, say hello to Nik Freitas. No one was there to see him and no one paid much attention as the band launched into their first tune. But for those who weren't hiding out in the beer garden with the Bats' Eric Johnson or yakking on a cell phone or posing for the ladies in their new mesh ball cap and retro sneakers, it became clear very quickly that this guy wasn't messing around.
The band moved effortlessly from sounds evoking Madman across the Water-era Elton John to weird concoctions of fellow central Californians' Grandaddy to Wilco-esque country-tinged, low-fi pop. It was raw and sloppy but inspired. Yet, their brief set rose and fell so sharply, no one seemed to notice. In fact, I hadn't thought much about the set -- as impressed as I was -- until Freitas's second full-length CD Heavy Mellow arrived in the mail.
But for nine short songs, Freitas shows off a talent that is undeniable and an energy that is inspiring. This record is one of the great surprises of the year.
Freitas, an accomplished skateboard magazine photographer, made his first foray into music with 2001's Here's Laughing at You. The record fell under most folks' radars as it drew favorable comparisons to usual suspects the Beatles, Paul Simon, Squeeze, and even Leonard Cohen due to its wit. In a sea of similarly described records, it's no wonder no one gave it much thought.
In retrospect, though, it appears to lack the cohesive vision and raw excitement of Heavy Mellow, recorded exclusively after midnight above a stationary store in the four-block downtown of Freitas's hometown of Visalia, California. From the first few bars of the pounding bass line that opens "Be Honest", there's a "lightning captured in a bottle" feel. And when the bass gives way to a delicate but suspenseful plucking of the piano keys before turning back on itself, you're already awaiting something special. It's not often that a first track, hell, a first few lines of music can induce that kind of anticipation.
Freitas's vocals, which join a few seconds later, are familiar without being derivative. At its heart, "Be Honest" isn't much of a song -- its central theme carries a sort of tired hippie ethic -- but it rocks so hard you forget about the mostly forgettable lyrics.
The acoustic guitar-driven "Careful What You Choose" again isn't all that special lyrically, but it's got soul and that's enough to get by most of the time. In fact, it's not until the third track, the epic "Summer Hearts", that Freitas shows off his entire range of skills. It's another of those songs that sounds like something else, though you can't put your finger on exactly what. Mostly, it explodes out of the speakers like the soundtrack to a sprawling cinematic masterpiece.
Of course, it's a bit of a masterpiece all by itself. Soulful piano. Affecting vocals. Transcendent lyrics. It's a beatific meditation on the fleeting moments of life and, according to press material, is inspired by a recent loss in Freitas's family. The last lines of the song, fittingly, have a haunting beauty: "Grandmother kneels at grandpa's bed side / Whispering so he can hear / Summer hearts live forever / Summer hearts beat together / Summer hearts stay together / Through the years ."
"Penny" has a "Tiny Dancer"-vibe. It's a simple, soulful piano pop song with a hip-hop/R&B flow to the lyrics. Again, it's not tackling any great themes, basically a warning about over indulgence, but the arrangement is so infectious, it doesn't really matter. "Cheaters" has a dark pop sensibility; the organ on "Nursery Street" evokes Van Morrison, the lyrics Bob Dylan; "Bad Dream" is a rave-up rocker with its John Lennon moments thanks to some hazy dream imagery and the finale, "Sentimental Life", has lyrical turns worthy of Jeff Tweedy yet is as catchy as early Billy Joel, if that makes any sense at all.
As you can see, trying to peg all of Freitas's influences is pretty much a useless endeavor. There is something uniquely sentimental at work here. It's like taking "one more dance" and "doing it like we always could", as Freitas sings in the album's last track. But unlike that song, that feeling the record leaves isn't a negative one. Freitas tweaks those aforementioned traditions just enough to make them wholly his own. In the process, he makes you remember how wonderfully visceral rock 'n' roll is supposed to be.