Ever seen those “Weird” travel guides? Weird Wisconsin, Weird New York, et. al.? If such things appeal to you, grab a listen to These Wicked Things, the dark and crafty new album from Boston’s Beat Circus. This musical portrait of sad, weird America, brainchild of singer and songwriter Brian Carpenter, etches out lurid, dusty images of the ragged, bluesy, and weird side of the Land of the Free.
Carpenter uses a varied palette of sounds and traditions. To me, some of them resonate with artists as different as the Velvet Underground, John Zorn, The Doors, Merle Haggard, Pink Martini, and The Residents. Whatever your personal references, the album is a most unusual concoction of dry-ice Americana, spaghetti westerns, creepy spoken-word prose poems, and side trips to the avant-garde. The CD version is particularly worth having for the stark black-and-white artwork by Danijel Zezelj, showing lovers, smoking ruins, gaunt horsemen, a hitchhiker, a murder, and a shabby motel.
The instrumental numbers as well as the story songs evoke a bleak American backcountry, where the lost wander and the resigned slip furtively by. “White angels pass him by in / Giant clouds of smoke / He is alone in this world” recounts the singer of “Gone, Gone, Gone.” Everywhere intriguing musical themes emerge, and here and there a memorable melody even grows in that scrubby soil, as in the title track and the tuneful instrumental “The Girl from the West Country.” A panoply of instruments – tuba and bassoon, flute and sax, jaw harp, tubular bells, and more – join the standard lineup of twangy guitar, lap steel, bass, and drums. The feels range from tango and polka to gravelly folk and shambling free jazz.
Brightly inventive in the service of a dim mood, the songs smell of existential desperation. “Is anybody out there? I’m waiting for you to appear,” asks the narrator of “The Last Man,” the epic, penultimate song. Its lyrics, unlike the rest, are missing from the booklet – an oversight? Or a bullet-hole through the heart?
Michael McDermott isn’t aiming for cool. Everything he’s about on his new album Orphans is right upfront. The hardworking, hard-touring, and long-running Chicagoan is out with Orphans, a set of songs that got left behind over the course of his last rounds of recording. Filled with lyrics of loss and regret, the set begins with the catchy, crunchy heartland rock of “Tell Tale Heart” and the ’80s-style mid-tempo sheen of “The Last Thing I Ever Do.” A warm acoustic folk vibe arrives with “Ne’er Do Well”: “There are times I just say ‘Ne’er Do Well’ when they ask me for my name.”
“Meadowlark” is one of the best tracks. A simple, catchy melody underpins this bright muscular song, with pathos-drenched vocals and a tasty arrangement bathed in scampering guitars and Beatle-esque effects. “Full Moon Goodbye” is another good one, an authentic 3/4 ballad with romantic-poetic lyrics. “Los Angeles, a Lifetime Ago” is a poetic ballad of regret for past wrongs and yet another lost love: “Some dreams don’t die easy.”
These top tracks all sit in the album’s first and last thirds. The songs in the middle are too derivative – mostly of Bruce Springsteen – to ring fully true. “Sometimes When It Rains in Memphis” is a strong but self-consciously Springsteen-esque ballad of regret. “The Wrong Side of Town” is a rocker in the vein of “Dancing in the Dark.” The songs in between them recall the Boss too. The effect is of less honesty, less authenticity, than you feel in the better tracks.
Michael McDermott appears Sat. March 30 2019 at Patterson Cellars in Woodinville, WA (Seattle area). His full calendar is online.