The Sand Reckoner

Last Charge Of The Light Horse

Independent release, 2020

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


It’s as reliable as anything in this unsettled age: every three years or so we’re graced with a new album from Last Charge Of The Light Horse, the vehicle for the songs of Jean-Paul Vest. A gifted singer-songwriter in the vein of James McMurtry or Richard Thompson, Vest crafts lyrics of such penetrating intelligence that the songs end up feeling like rock and roll poetry in the best and truest sense.

The new Last Charge album The Sand Reckoner is in some ways as knotty and mysterious as its title, while also being viscerally present thanks to its vivid language and imaginative arrangements. One moment you’re bouncing along to a two-guitars, bass-and-drums rock song, the next you’re through the looking glass into a parallel universe of tablas and dumbeks, trumpets and cellos. (See this review’s companion interview with Vest and co-producer Jim Watts for more of the backstory.)

The Sand Reckoner sometimes fuses and other times alternates between Last Charge’s two principal musical personalities, powerful rock band and inventive studio experiment. Last Charge’s live lineup of Bob Stander (guitar), Pemberton Roach (bass), and Shawn Murray (drums), with Vest on vocals and guitar, is featured on several tracks, while others feature a range of guests and sonic textures. Vest, a fan of meticulous sonic adventurers like XTC and Radiohead, fully embraces the freedom of making music as an independent artist, answerable only to his own vision.

Dynamic opener “Just Once” throws you straight in the deep end with a restless, rather Spanish feel. Vest and Watts’ decision to leave out bass while adding layers of percussion from guests Elizabeth Goodfellow and Nolan Vest unmoors the song, matching it perfectly to its most striking image: “The trees are a frantic mob in the wind / delirious rave in the moonlight.” On its heels, the roiling, muscular arrangement of “Back Up The Hill” is counterpointed by striking vocal harmonies from Watts, Pam Aronoff and Martha Trachtenberg, ahead of a powerful breakdown featuring Stander and guest bassist Jonny Flaugher.

Up third, “Choose Now” finds Stander, Murray, and especially Roach at the top of their respective games, lilting guitar, restless drums, and elastic bass supporting brilliant imagery and wordplay. Vest’s coolly intense lead vocal gives the aspect of an oracle dispensing timeless wisdom: “Our bodies overlaid with the filigree of age / I’m done balancing the ache of longing / And the fear of wondering if you’ll stay.” The band, along with guest Gwen Vest, are on board again for “Chocolate And Cherries,” a superb love poem set to bewitching music. The critical choice Vest makes is that the song doesn’t put love or lovers on a pedestal; instead, it describes in concrete terms how the magical and mundane elements of a partnership are equally essential to the persistence of love. As Vest describes how “the day sheds its vastness / and the evening constricts / down to a light on the pages you turn / and the fridge sings its persistent B-flat,” you are in that moment, one that’s recognizable to anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

A limber earworm of a bass line—this time by Flaugher—is featured again in the intense “Running My Finger Along The Scar,” as our narrator thinks back on an old love, insisting that it’s neither nostalgia nor regret, “More like the echo of a song I heard / Another singer sing in another lifetime.” A moment later we’re transported to a “Midnight Parking Lot,” where the band is absent and the rhythm section is electronic as Vest sketches an evocative vignette that leaves it to the listener to conjure up the rest of the story as Nick Vest’s haunting trumpet solo fires the imagination.

The band returns for “Old Habits,” a shuffling, big-boned rocker lit up by a series of precision solos from Stander. The lyric examines the unexamined (“A dozen things your brain does best without you in the way”) before extending the idea of reflexive, unconscious action to other aspects of life like religion and politics. Vest’s affection for George Harrison comes to the fore in the song’s brief postscript, an instrumental coda where Stander switches over to sitar. Forging further down the path less taken, “The Bill Comes Due”—a tight little “you’ll get what’s coming to you” nod to karma—is dominated by tablas (courtesy of guest Avirodh Sharma) and banjo (courtesy of guest Jeff Scroggins), conjuring an exotic, even eerie atmosphere.

The mood brightens for the gorgeous “Balanced On The Edge,” a song about being just about to fall in love, feeling “weightless at the apogee of anticipation.” Vest’s piano and voice sustain the tension in the song, with lyrical guitar from guest Trevor Menear (Dawes) decorating the upper registers. “I know a passing fancy from a thunderbolt / I know a dissertation from an anecdote,” asserts Vest on this sublime number.

Closer “April Morning” again describes a distinct, recognizable moment, when you complete a project you’ve become so invested in that finishing leaves you feeling empty and adrift. At first Vest carries the melody on Mellotron, before it’s doubled and tripled on violin (Leann Strom) and cello (Jon Preddice), with upright bass (Keenan Zach) holding down the bottom end. The final sounds heard—a needle riding the empty grooves at the end of a vinyl LP—offers the perfect close for this journey.

The Sand Reckoner extends the string of outstanding albums Vest has delivered since debuting the Last Charge moniker with 2005’s Getaway Car. Whether galloping through an expansive rock song or zooming in on the most telling details of quieter moments, Vest, Watts, and the Last Charge supporting cast bring his incisive lyrics to three-dimensional life again and again. In a world overrun with disposable entertainment, Last Charge Of The Light Horse offers authentic emotion set to dynamic, inventive music, an intoxicating brew that tastes suspiciously like Art.

Rating: A

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