Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Reviews:: Ray's Vast Basement Starvation Under the Orange Trees

When a band attempts to move into the realm of literary rock, the results are usually mixed. For every successful concept of album about a great novel (for example Lawrence Arms take on Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita), you have hundreds of bands who butcher Hemingway or Salinger’s words into a mix of teenage angst and power chords. I guess, as a result, I was a bit sketched by the premise of Jon Bernson creating a record based on the classic Steinbeck masterpiece, Of Mice and Men.

Long story very short, the Actors Theater of San Francisco commissioned Jon to craft songs based on the novel, and play them live in a theatre setting. The results (apparently) were amazing, and after the show finished (and a studio flooding ruined their instruments), Jon and his talented friends went to work on recording the record. The result – Starvation Under the Orange Trees – is one of the most pleasant surprises on the year for me.

For the sake of the review, I’m going to step away from trying to correlate the songs to the book, ignoring the chance to talk about one of my favorite books and end up coming off like an idiot, but I just want to say the songs Jon wrote mirror the depression and pessimistic nature of the characters, and the vast soundscapes represent the vivid descriptions of the farmland scenery of the novel perfectly. He balances the dichotomy between the unrestrained freedom of the great countryside and the struggles of the Depression era farmhands who live knowing their dreams will never come true flawlessly. The gentle brushed drums and haunting saw paint a bleak picture on Ocean Notes, and the horns that flare up on Black Cotton add the perfect amount of rage and anger to mimic the fight between two men. You can’t escape the repetitive drone of the Work Song. As the instruments start to blend together, you can picture the workers plodding along under the heat of the Californian sun.

But the nice thing about this project – that features some amazing musicians including Nate Query (The Decemberists), Enzo Garcia (Jolie Holland), Sean Coleman (Kelley Stoltz) and Michael Zapruder – is you can enjoy the music without ever picking up the novel. Gentle acoustic loops and interesting arrangements help support the imagery in Jon’s words. The simple picked riff and harpsichord melody of Tall Bob Smoke weaves its way into your brain. From the Wilco-esque California’s Gone to the cinematic chimes and sparse stomped kick drum of The Story of Lee, the layers and textures literally expose themselves with each listen. Just like the novel it draws its inspiration from; this record is one that will stick you for years to come.

MP3::Black Cotton

Posted at 12:28 PM by ack :: 0 comments

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