Last Charge Of The Light Horse

Independent release, 2022


REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


In case anyone was wondering—and I definitely wasn’t—trauma continues to be extremely fertile soil for art.

When the world shut down in 2020, singer-songwriter Jean-Paul Vest did what so many creatives do when confronted by a traumatic situation: hunkered down, observed and absorbed, processed, and then, over time, poured it all into his art. In Vest’s case, the outlet for his piercingly perceptive James McMurtry-meets-George Harrison songs is his band Last Charge Of The Light Horse.

After fermenting for a few months, the essence of the sixth Last Charge album Octet arrived in a lightning flash in late February 2021. Vest tells the tale in this album’s entertaining liner notes: “As songwriters go, I’m not especially prolific; I usually manage three or four songs a year. It came as a complete surprise when these eight songs invited themselves over all at once, more or less fully formed, over a period of four days. Like any unexpected swarm of house guests, they monopolized my time and energy while I figured out what to do with them. I decided to make a solo acoustic album. ‘Whatever you want,’ they said, pulling electric guitars out of the closet and dialing [Last Charge drummer] Shawn Murray’s number.’”

Like headstrong children, the songs went where they needed to go, which turned out to be another rich and remarkable full-band outing of thinking-person’s rock and roll featuring Vest (lead vocals and guitar) backed by his personal Wrecking Crew of Murray (drums), Pemberton Roach (bass), and Bob Stander (lead guitar). That core trio—a steady presence by Vest’s side for a decade now—receives key support here from harmony vocalists Martha Trachtenberg, Pam Aronoff and Jim Watts, as well as guests Tom Griffith (acoustic guitar), Nick Vest (trumpet and vocal harmonies) and Gwendolyn Vest (flute and vocal harmonies).

Octet presents a concise yet potent 25-minute song cycle whose origins might suggest that it’s a “lockdown album,” and certain moments do explicitly mine that powerful context, but at its core what Octet explores is the universal human experience of feeling alone in the world and seeking connection to sustain us. Heady stuff for your average rock and roller, but Vest’s penetrating, insightful songs are anything but average.

Both the micro and the macro context behind Octet feed into its powerhouse opener “When Will,” whose warm, thrumming opening chords welcome you into a place of familiar longing:

When will I see your faces in a crowd again,
Basking in celebration with a kitchen full of friends?my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250
This long nighttime will have to end
I’m counting down the seconds until then

It’s a theme song for the lockdown, deftly rendered and deeply moving, in which the hardest part is missing those small everyday moments we normally share with the people we love.

“Rosary Of The Routine” follows, a contemplation of solitude and loneliness anchored with gentle, ringing electric chords and the rhythm section’s steady, purposeful shuffle. Vest’s incisive lyric examines the way worries can overtake your mind when your day is stripped down to nothing but the daily routine. As night falls, “the day’s bewilderments begin to fade” but “you just need to talk” to work it all out in your head. Here and elsewhere, Trachtenberg’s luminous harmonies take the song to the next level.

“Torricelli’s Dream” offers explicit acknowledgement of the album’s context—“This quarantine feels like a marathon Turing test at times”—set to rippling, chiming, gorgeous electric guitar and lush harmonies from Aronoff, Watts, and Gwendolyn Vest. The lyric reads like a catalogue of lockdown life, with the addition of perspective: “The ring of our telephones is a constant barrage / We’re providing IT support and emotional triage… Every day is demanding / It feels like we’re still standing / But the stars could all go out tonight / And we wouldn’t know for years.”

Propelled by Vest’s churning rhythm guitar, the restless “Day Follows Day” captures the constant ratcheting of internal tension as stress builds over time until he finally explodes at the bridge (“Do you ever feel the need to break something? / Ever want to run away?”) cuing Stander’s muscular, dancing-on-the-edge-of-chaos guitar solo. Wowza.

“Taking Five” is just what it sounds like, an introspective interlude featuring shimmery guitar, with Gwendolyn’s flute and Trachtenberg’s harmonies adding gentle accents. It’s a nice segue into acoustic showcase “For Now,” featuring guest Griffith playing a coiled, slithery melody as Vest sings of trying to stay present in the moment even as “obligations insist” and routine takes over. “Disambiguation” follows with angular, brawny electric riffing under Vest’s playful slam poetry, a heady, multi-syllabic love song that—despite borrowing the line “I want to be your man”—owes as much to Lou Reed as it does to the Beatles.

Closer “Stay A While” is another bravura number, a naturalistic retelling of an everyday vignette—a group of strangers in lively conversation—that represents the essence of what we were missing in lockdown: that timeless, perpetual background hum of life. In the later going, Vest and co-producer/mixer Watts construct a theater-of-the-mind moment as dueling narrators Griffith (English) and Clara Ines Rojas-Sebesto (Spanish) reprise the tale over ringing, echoing chords, before Vest returns to implore them all to “Tell your story to me,” the creative engine hungry once again for fresh fuel.

A decade into their musical partnership, it’s hard to imagine anyone else bringing Vest’s distinctive songs to life with the same sympathetic dexterity and complete commitment that longtime collaborators Roach, Murray, and Stander bring to the task. And Vest’s long-term partnership with co-producer/mixer Jim Watts—part of the Last Charge team since 2011’s Curve EP—continues to play a critical role as well; it’s clear that Watts “gets” this music on a molecular level and has a clear vision of how to maximize its impact.

Returning to where we began, if the function of art in relation to trauma wasn’t already clear, Vest makes it explicit in a single couplet in opener “When Will”:

And if the waiting grows too long
I can sing you this song

Art is medicine for the soul, and Last Charge Of The Light Horse’s Octet is a powerful elixir.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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