Haunting, Picturesque Retro Chamber Pop from Jon DeRosa

Jon DeRosa’s latest album A Wolf in Preacher’s Clothes is sort of the missing link between Jarvis Cocker and Leonard Cohen; or in a more modern context, between Ward White and Mark Sinnis. DeRosa grew up with punk, then took a plunge into goth (his Aarktika project was his main gig until he ventured into dark Americana in the mid-zeros). This one – available on vinyl in the US from Motherwest and out on Nov 5 from Rocket Girl in Europe – finds him alternating between dark, lushly crooned, Scott Walker-inflected chamber pop and more minimalist, postpunk-tinged, distantly creepy rock. Violinist Claudia Chopek’s string arrangements – also featuring Julia Kent on cello – are to die for, a rich, velvety chocolate truffle for the ears. Overhead, DeRosa’s nuanced, cat-ate-the-canary baritone lingers, sometimes ominous, sometimes with more than a hint of rakishness. And he paints a hell of a picture.

Birds of Brooklyn sets the scene, DeRosa’s crepuscular croon over Burt Bacharach-inflected chamber pop. It’s a cruel juxtaposition: all eyes are on the gentrifier girl, including the old blue-collar guy with the “thousand yard stare” drinking boilermakers and stuck with “love songs on the underside of the sports page, in a nom de plume.” That’s DeRosa’s genius: this scenario could go from elegance to cliche in a second, but he never caves in to sentimentality. This is one cynical album.

True Men sets a more wistful tone, boxing serving as its central metaphor. Over a sweeping arrangement straight out of late 50s Ricky Nelson, DeRosa lets the double entendres fly. “I’ve woken the neighbors, after hard nights of labor,” is the closing mantra. And who hasn’t? But the way he sets it up – and then knocks it down – is sweet science.

Over lush 80s goth-rock, Snow Coffin paints a chillingly allusive nocturnal scene lowlit by Sam Lazzara’s vibraphone, drummer Mike Pride throwing in some deadpan Atrocity Exhibition rolls. Teenage Goths is as sardonically funny as you’d hope it would be: it sounds like an outtake from a mid-90s Pulp album.

The hypnotic, echoey Tattooed Lady’s Blues paints an ominous afterparty scenario, with a cruelly offhand Lou Reed reference. By contrast, Who Decides balances jauntiness with a more somber noir 60s Orbisonesque vibe, weighing whether or not a “kiss is just as kiss – the sun that also rises might bring surprises.” Again, Pride’s Sonny Bono/Phil Spector drumming is spot-on. After that, DeRosa keeps the guarded optimism going with the clever, coy Don’t Say Goodnight.

Ladies in Love sets plaintive washes of strings against DeRosa’s starkly fingerpicked acoustic guitar; the album’s closing track, Hollow Earth Theory – previously released as an Aarktika song – takes the swirling, hypnotic factor up a notch.

DeRosa also gives a welcome sheen, heft and bulk to the Blue Nile‘s bitterly minimalist Easter Parade. Hearing it only makes you wonder what he could do with, say, John Cale’s Paris 1919. Throughout the album, the playing is understatedly seamless, terse, and tuneful, also including contributions from JJ Beck on accordion, Charles Newman on organ, Kendrick Strauch on piano, Matt Basile on electric and upright bass and a horn section of James Duncan on trumpet and Jon Natchez on a small army’s worth of instruments. One of the most haunting and intriguing albums of 2012: you”ll see this on the best albums of the year page here at the end of December if we make it that far.