Race To The Sound

Last Charge Of The Light Horse

Curlock & Jalaiso, 2018

http://www.lastcharge.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/20/2018

It’s a rare and wondrous moment when a song reaches so deep inside and resonates so strongly that it sends waves of tingling “chicken skin” dancing back and forth from my shoulder blades to the top of my scalp. This happened not once, but twice over the course of my first couple of listens to the new album from Last Charge Of The Light Horse, the vehicle for the songs, voice and guitar of Jean-Paul Vest.

Race To The Sound is Vest’s fourth album (plus an EP) under the Last Charge moniker, and first since 2014’s superb Nine Kinds Of Happy. He remains one of the most prodigiously talented singer-songwriters I have ever encountered, a poet who sets his striking words to imaginative roots-rock that is all substance and no flash. Vest’s songs stun you with subtlety and wow you with precision; every instrument, note, and voice is placed with forethought and purpose.

CD Baby recommends Last Charge if you like Wilco, XTC and Bob Dylan, three artists I’ve rarely seen grouped together, and yet I have to tip my hat to the algorithm, even if the list feels incomplete without Vest’s acknowledged idol George Harrison. His songs are all at once lyrical and unassuming, shimmery and earthy, bracingly direct and fearlessly experimental.

Ever the insightful observer, Vest opens the new album with a song about songwriting, employing the flu as a metaphor for creative drought. “Finally free of the rattle in my chest / stealing the oxygen I had to strain to collect… Finally free of the rattle in my mind / bleeding the self-belief from the every verse that I rhyme.” Musically, “Where The Winter Ends” is pure imagination, opening over electronic percussion, adding strummed electric guitar, sharp interjections of flute and trumpet (from the next generation of talent, Nicholas and Gwendolyn Vest), shakers and tambourine, and gorgeous, gospel-tinged harmony vocals by Camryn Quinlan. Every note and vocal inflection is exactly where it should be; the way Vest sings just two words—“obligation lifted”—tells an entire story in six spare syllables. Toward the end, the song coalesces around a deft, powerful description of the experience of creation: “All my doubts they blur and fade / like yesterday’s skywriting / I’m caught up in the wake / of a moment that’s flying.”

And then there are nine more.

“What If,” which Vest previewed on social media last year, is a stunner, a rumination on possibility and fate set to gorgeous chiming guitars, with the ace Last Charge rhythm section of Shawn Murray (drums) and Pemberton Roach (bass) setting the pace as the song gains momentum, adding strings, electronic percussion and harmony vocals. “Light from the ground throws our shadows on the blue,” he sings as the music surges, “turns the world upside down and I remember how to love you.” Chicken skin, every time. At 2:30 Vest adds little slide guitar filigrees right out of the Harrison toolkit, played by guest Aaron Palmadessa, launching an already spectacular number into the stratosphere. Which is what Vest does, again and again: he takes subject matter that can feel deceptively simple and elevates it with his craftsmanship and imagination. And really, what is simple about the human heart?

Next is a song about a motel room, which sounds mundane, but in Vest’s hands "This Room" becomes a musical rendering of a Hopper painting, “Nighthawks” relocated to a Super 8 where the occupants of one room are being dragged out to a waiting police cruiser while the traveler next door is rethinking his entire life. “This room was made to make you / second-guess your direction, hesitate / and call into question the reservation that yielded a quarter-hearted smile and a key / and a map photocopied into unreadability.” You can feel the ennui of the night clerk and smell the must in the curtains, and then a chorus of harmony vocalists enters (Martha Trachtenburg, Tom Griffith, and Pam Aronoff) to play off of Vest’s lead vocal and the skittering, steady-on Roach-Murray rhythm section and you’re lost inside a haunting, Springsteenesque film.nbtc__dv_250

Two instrumental tracks function as musical aperitifs between courses of songs here, the first being “Strange Sat(i)ellite,” an eerie, jazzy duet between Vest’s piano and son Nicholas’s trumpet, until Jonathan Preddice’s cello and Murray’s drums enter and it gets even more unsettled, and unsettling.

Next up after that entertaining interlude is “More,” all shimmery, rippling 12-string guitar notes at first until Vest’s voice enters in his lower register, anchoring a stunning love song. When the drums and Pam Aronoff’s gorgeous harmony vocals arrive, the songs begins a steady, inexorable build to an eruptive solo from Bob Stander, lead guitarist in Last Charge’s core lineup. And that’s just the music; the lyric is equally powerful and sublime, juxtaposing the biggest questions life has to offer (“Tell me there’s been a signal buried in the static all this time”) alongside the simplest, most fundamental human desires (“Tell me I’ll wake up beside you every morning for a long, long time”)

The mood shifts again with “You’ve Lost Your Way,” a spare, haunting number featuring just Vest’s guitar, spooky electronic percussion, and Murray’s stuttering, unruly drums. The lack of bass amplifies the sense of dislocation in the lyric, leaving you to ponder whether the title refrain refers to homeless people, immigrants, or the nation itself. The answer, it seems, is yes.

“You Are My Raincloud” inverts the standard imagery of love as bright sunshine, a song that starts out lilting and steadily unravels as Vest sings of craving the darkness and tension in a challenging relationship. Roach’s athletic bass line is a highlight here, as is Stander’s nervous-breakdown solo, while the lyric offers some of Vest’s bleakest and most penetrating poetry: “You are my darkness, my only darkness / and a respite for my eyes when the argent winter stabs at my sight.”

Instrumental interlude number two is really just a vignette, Vest tinkering with a synthesizer and drum machine for a bare 1:22, but entertaining at that. Next on the menu, “Five Feet to the Meter” is another song about songwriting and the lived experience of a creator. “We’ve sailed beyond the edge of consciousness / and I’m dreaming in iambic,” he sings, an apt description of the unencumbered creative imagination. Mid-song Vest adds clarinet, a rather ordinary instrument that feels absolutely exotic in this context.

Moody closer “Cool Night, Quiet Place” rides a steady, pulsing guitar riff which repeats and repeats, pushing the poetry forward as Vest entreats a family member to let go of old grudges.  “You keep everything: scraps of paper, bits of string / and a headful of sordid grievances from a past life / like an expired inventory you can’t move at any price / couldn’t give away to save your life.” It’s another instantly recognizable character, sketched in a handful of lines.

Overall, Race To The Sound feels like a milestone of sorts, marking the seamless incorporation of the electronic elements that dominated 2011’s Curve EP and decorated 2014’s Nine Kinds Of Happy into Vest’s core sound of rangy, thoughtful roots-rock. Much like his lyrics, which repeatedly subvert both clichés and expectations, the music that accompanies them is full of tension and quirks right up until, when it needs to, it rocks. Vest and co-producer/multi-instrumentalist Jim Watts make all the pieces fit together with crisp yet organic-feeling production.

For a summation I’ll turn to Vest’s Last Charge bandmate Pemberton Roach, who recently described his friend’s work like this: “super-intense, exquisitely crafted, deeply thoughtful, and just plain beautiful music… I know more than a few people who consider him to be a genius. I'm not exaggerating when I say I consider him one of the all-time great ‘unknown’ American artists and believe his name should be mentioned in the same breath as legendary purveyors of ‘thinking man’s’ music like Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen, and Lloyd Cole… If you’re in the mood for music that rewards repeated listenings and favors art over commerce, I highly recommend this album.”

Amen.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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