Wake up; it's 1972. The Stones and Bowie are making some of the best music of their careers. Dylan's on hiatus, but his influence is alive and well. Power pop kingpins Big Star just released their debut album. While in reality, we're almost 50 years away from that golden age, the music of Kyle Craft is steeped in it on his second album, Full Circle Nightmare.
Coming almost two years after his debut, Dolls of Highland, the latest album from Louisiana-born, Portland-based singer/songwriter Craft manages to accomplish the nearly impossible: it blows away a debut album that was already damn near flawless. Some of this is due to manpower – while Dolls was recorded almost entirely by Craft (on a laptop in Shreveport, Louisiana), Full Circle Nightmare takes advantage of a full band, in addition to a more traditional studio environment, recorded in Portland with producer Chris Funk of the Decemberists.
With a band and a seasoned producer at his disposal, Craft was able to concentrate on the songwriting, which continues to mature with a heap of intricate, Dylanesque wordplay. The overall vibe of the album is much richer, sonically. Honky-tonk pianos, lively Hammond organ, tambourines hitting all the right beats: Funk draws out the right sound for these songs and Craft sings his heart out on every track.
The music takes on a more "widescreen" approach than its predecessor. To use a Rolling Stones analogy: if Dolls of Highland is Aftermath, Full-Circle Nightmare is Exile on Main Street. While Craft has described the lyrics on Nightmare as "less scatterbrained" than its predecessor, he takes full advantage of his Dylan obsession by crafting cryptic, hallucinogenic landscapes with his words. "Was she the wedding dress / Drenched all in gasoline / Was she the New Age Jezebel dog treat," Craft asks on the frenetic album opener, "Fever Dream Girl".
Craft admits that Full Circle Nightmare is essentially autobiographical, and if that's the case, he's dealt with his share of heartbreak and hard living these past few years. "Heartbreak Junky" combines plenty of self-deprecating digs with pronouncements of unrequited love (or perhaps just lust) while a lively, country-funk accompaniment straight out of Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection props up Craft's beer-buzzed declarations. "Now the bars are closed," Craft sings, "And the city sleeps tight / As I ramble home my wretched merry way / Where down was up / And feeling bad felt so right / I thought that vertigo was here to stay." You can practically smell the cigarettes and booze coming off the grooves.
Elsewhere, Craft eloquently describes "morning after" scenarios on songs like "The Rager", where a mysterious woman (this album's full of them) who could be a waitress, a prostitute or maybe a blackjack dealer, is the subject of Craft's scrutiny. But the final verse is where Craft's lyrical prowess truly paints a picture of hungover debauchery: "What on earth did we do last night / Why is there blood on the shower wall? / Who's that sleeping on the hardwood floor? / And what's that number written on my palm?" But Craft continues unperturbed on this path. "My keys are somewhere in my pants / But I ain't trying to get back home / She wakes up, and she quietly laughs / There's a party tonight if you want to go."
One of Full Circle Nightmare's highlights is "Exile Rag", a track that not only maintains Craft's knack for verbose lyricism, it also keeps the smoke-filled, honky-tonk musical momentum going. Alongside twangy electric leads and barrelhouse piano, Craft's full-throated shout laments the one that got away. "But by the time that her door's closing / And you feel like you're imposing / On that brand new boyfriend she has / She'll be rolling in new love / And you'll be singing on the Exile Rag." On "Bridge City Rose", another one of the album's high-water marks, Craft describes a relationship with a broken yet almost mystically beautiful woman and lets his poetry paint the picture. "Now I'm on the bed, and her hair's undone / My face is wet, her face is worn / From empty years and bitter scorn / In a Victorian loft." The band shuffles along gloriously, sounding like Ryan Adams backed by The Band at The Last Waltz.
On the album's closer, "Gold Calf Moan", Craft straddles a line between musical theater and a more melodic form of progressive rock, creating an atmosphere not unlike Bat Out of Hell (Craft's impeccable tenor has been favorably compared in the past to vintage Meat Loaf) but not nearly as bloated. It's almost as if Craft were making a conscious effort to cover as many musical bases as possible without sounding forced.
Where Craft appears most comfortable, obviously, is in a musical timeframe a good 15 to 20 years before he was born. There isn't a synthesizer, programmed beat or overly processed electric guitar anywhere near Full Circle Nightmare. In fact, it comes across as a fitting time capsule to another era, despite having been created in this decade. Kyle Craft – one of the most interesting and talented new artists of the last several years - makes that kind of retro/analog musical journey seem natural and not the least bit contrived – a tough act to pull off in today's somewhat self-conscious musical climate.