Don’t let the presence of somebody from the Decemberists scare you away from Portland, Oregon songwriter Leigh Marble’s new album Where the Knives Meet Between the Rows: there’s nothing remotely indie about it. The playing – especially the terse, elegantly biting piano – is strong and so are Marble’s tense, brooding vocals. And there’s even a savagely amusing, glammy song here titled Holden (after the Salinger character) that mocks the deliberate ineptitude that defines indie rock and the trendoids who make it: “Oh you sweet dumb creatures, missing half your features, disfigured by design, singing with half a heart…” It’s got a singalong outro to rival the cruellest thing Elvis Costello ever did to an audience.
But that’s a rare light moment here. Marble wrote the songs on the album during a harrowing period after his girlfriend had been diagnosed with breast cancer. But rather than bailing, Marble did the noble thing and married her; after treatment, she regained her health, and he got a good record out of it. Unsurprisingly, it’s pretty gloomy – is there a silver lining to mirror what ultimately turned out to be a win-win situation for Marble? Not really. This is his third album, his first since 2007 and by far his darkest.
The first two tracks are free downloads. The opening cut, Walk has an ominously strolling, noir vibe anchored in the low registers of the organ, piano and synth. “Gonna walk until my heart stops pumping,” Marble insists. Is the surprisingly peaceful interlude midway through a sign of better days to come? Nope. The second free download, Jackrabbit sounds like Big Star taking a mighty stab at 70s stadium rock: it’s a cynical, suspensefully imagistic look at the psychology of corruption, whether political or otherwise.
“I know you wanna leave me, well I wanna leave me too,” Marble intones on the terminally depressed, country-tinged lullaby, Goodnight. The understatedly desperate Evil features boomy Mo Tucker drums, cello and accordion: the way Marble uses macabre imagery to set up a scenario that will resonate with anyone who doesn’t have health insurance is artful to the extreme. He follows that with the equally bleak Nail, a dirgey piece of gothic Americana:
So keep your eyes on that nail in the coffin
On the thread as it winds off the bobbin
And there at the end of your rope
You’ll test the aerodynamics of hope
Pony, a snidely vicious drunken pickup scenario, is the closest thing to Lou Reed here – and contains the funniest reference to Pringles in rock history. Inebriate Waltz, a homage to 19th century Portland poet Sam Simpson – who died after a fall on the sidewalk outside his favorite hotel bar – returns to a bitter, doomed, bluesy noir ambience. The snarling, slow, bluesy Greener Pastures evokes Steve Wynn in a particularly gruesome mood; the slow, final cut, Cars (an original, not the Gary Numan new wave hit) quotes Pink Floyd as it imagines a painfully banal apocalypse. Dark songwriting doesn’t get any better than this. RIYL: Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Tim Foljahn, Mark Sinnis, LJ Murphy…and Lou Reed of course.