Last Charge Of The Light Horse

Curlock & Jalaiso, 2008

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Lyric sheets are a dicey business for a writer-geek like me. I’m often so hung up on the quality of lyrics that I’ve learned not to look at them before I listen to a disc, because a weak turn of phrase or clichéd idea can color my whole view of the album before I’ve heard a note of music.

In this case, though, I’ve been around the block with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jean-Paul Vest twice already -- once with his former group Blue Sandcastle and more recently with his newer trio Last Charge Of The Light Horse -- and both times his songs have completely captured me. Yes, the singing is strong, the playing is excellent, and the production usually strikes a nice balance between raw and sharp, but the words are what’s ended up pulling me headlong into Vest’s universe each time we’ve met.

And so, when the new Last Charge disc Fractures showed up in my mailbox just a few minutes ago, the first thing I did was pop it in the computer to rip it onto my iPod… and what did I do while the CD drive was busy spinning zeroes and ones but sit here and read the lyrics to an entire song.

Big mistake.

Because, you see, the song is the last one on this disc, “100,001,” and the lyric is not just brilliant but truly profound in a way that only a man of a certain age and station in life can appreciate. Being one myself, I am now stuck in a purgatory of my own making, waiting forty minutes to hear Vest sing said lyric because I do NOT cheat, I treat an album’s run order as sacred, especially the first time through, and especially if I’m going to be reviewing the thing.

Yes, you read that right. I haven’t heard a note of music yet, and I’m already frustrated about waiting half an hour to hear a song whose lyrics I’ve just read for the first time. If that suggests to you that this album might just be extraordinary… it should.

It’s time to listen now. More after the break.

* * *

If you think being a teenager is hard, try staring middle age in the face. All those big dreams you had have been reduced to life-sized reality -- this is your job, this is your family, this is your life. No do-overs allowed. You’re past halfway from cradle to grave and this is IT and what exactly do you have to show for it? A boatload of responsibilities, a household full of stress, and your friends and siblings all grappling with similar strains and doubts.

Having already established himself as one of my favorite lyricists working today, Jean-Paul Vest is back, and neither he nor father-son rhythm section Artie (drums and background vocals) and A.J. (bass and background vocals) Riegger have lost a step. Fractures is a genuine Everyman American gothic, a spare, intense song-cycle that reaches into the mid-life male’s closet of anxieties and drags them all out one by one.

“The New Year” quickly establishes the album’s themes of restlessness and concern about time passing, the trio’s skittering arrangement foreshadowing trouble as Vest sings “Look out ahead / we’re coming, coming fast / ready for the good old days to start at last / kick off the party with a laugh and a bang / leave your secrets in the closet / your failures where they hang.” my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“Face To Face” digs deeper yet as Vest explores the nooks and crannies of a sibling relationship on the rocks (“I can only speculate why you never call here anymore / could be advice I gave came back to bite me / could be you mean to but never write me… the distance between us increases as the years accelerate / we used to share a bedroom, now we live in separate states / with less to laugh about, more to tolerate”). The music is another jumpy rhythm section over which Vest and producer Bob Stander layer urgent, repeating chords, winching up the tension with each powerful verse.

The thing you notice only as the disc progresses is that there truly is an arc to this album’s story, but once you see it, no other run order could really work for these songs. “Something Out Of Nothing” accelerates the tempo another notch before finally releasing pent-up tension at the chorus of a song about the leap of faith that’s required both in creating a family and in keeping it going when times get rough (“All those magicians / they pull the dove from their sleeve / you and I pay down the mortgage / and try to believe”).

“One Kind Word” looks farther into the future of a similar relationship, Riegger’s drums rumbling gently in the back as Vest decorates his precise lyrics with stark, authoritative guitar strums: “One kind word shouldn’t have to last me so long / you leave me sucking on a happy memory until the sweetness is gone / I can’t walk away from my faith in a good thing / even if it never comes.” Ouch. An extended outro lends an epic, elegiac feel to this quietly devastating tune about losing faith in a relationship that’s built on it. Sequel “A New Expression” takes a more playful, sardonic look at what feels like the same relationship, set to a sing-songy electric blues arrangement.

The middle three tracks push the tempo, with “The Switch Is On” sounding initially like the album’s first upbeat song, handclaps and sunny acoustic strums setting the mood. And then the last verse comes along and offers what might actually be the album’s saddest moment, a vignette about filling the empty spaces in a relationship that’s suddenly full of them (”We’re grateful now for any little errand / marker in the void / but you forget your wallet / and we’re driving back and forth / what’s a repetition / in the context of a loop / or a needle in a groove”). Damn.

On the next cut Vest takes on one of his chief tormentors directly, calling out “Time” to a catchy, Byrds-influenced jangle-rock beat: “Waiting like a bully / at the edge of the beach / kicking down castles / ready to bury me in the sand of history.” Next up, the Springsteen influence comes on strong as “Worth In Trade” puts the album into fourth gear, an expansive electric track in which our narrator reaches outside himself to be the sounding board for a friend whose troubled relationship is “going nowhere in a lifetime flat.”

Setting up the album’s closing volley, “A Song Like Yours” backs things off to just Vest and his acoustic for a pretty tune about seeking your muse. The intense “Spring Ahead” unclenches gradually from there, narrating the last bitter fight in a doomed relationship over Vest’s rather eerie piano and the rustling rhythm pattern set by A.J. Riegger and guest drummer Larry Eagle (of Springsteen’s Sessions Band).

And then it’s here: the closer I’ve been waiting for. “100,001” does not disappoint; to the contrary, the way Vest speak-sings the lyric frames its poetry perfectly, a kind of hymn to the search for meaning that (hopefully) every sentient being goes through at some point. “The odometer flips to a hundred grand / and it feels like progress / the vague taste of accomplishment helps you feel a little less lost / but it’s a random number / you’re treading water / it’s visually pleasing / but grossly misleading / the accumulation of mundane errands over time.”

Fractures displays a more contemplative side of the band that made Getaway Car, a carefully contained intensity that contrasts with the previous album’s untethered nervous energy. It’s indisputably a more difficult disc to inhabit, and I’m honestly not sure what this disc might sound like to a 20-year-old – maybe a bit dour and over-analytical. But for this 45-year-old, Fractures hits like a target-locked cruise missile.

Fractures can be brutal at times, but that just makes the accomplishment that much greater when Vest succeeds in capturing the restlessness, doubt, yearning and recrimination of mid-life and making it into a beautiful, messy, painful and compassionate piece of art. Albums that challenge you this directly to think and feel and get caught up in another person’s perspective are rare today, but Fractures is one -- a wrenching, magnificent, thoroughly memorable one.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



© 2008 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Curlock & Jalaiso, and is used for informational purposes only.