Brooding Nocturnal Ambience from Sam Llanas

by delarue

As the co-founder and frontman of legendary heartland rockers the BoDeans, Sam Llanas built a deep catalog of singalong Americana rock anthems along with many darker, more pensive songs. Like any good songwriter, Llanas can evoke pretty much any emotion he wants. Yet even on his most upbeat upbeat hits with the band – She’s a Runaway, Still the Night, Feed the Fire, etc. – there was usually some undercurrent of unease. That came to the forefront in Absinthe, Llanas’ 1999 side project which released a single, riveting concept album, A Good Day to Die, a haunting series of songs inspired by the suicide of his older brother. Llanas waited til late last year before releasing his first album under his own name, the aptly titled 4 AM: he’s playing songs from it tonight, Sept 11 at 10 at Zirzamin, tomorrow the 12th at 8 PM at the small room at the Rockwood and then Monday the 17th at 8 at Iridium.

“I poured a small bourbon and water, and toasted the Clash,” Llanas sang on Cold Winter’s Day, one of the BoDeans most evocative nocturnes. That same atmosphere pervades the solo record, right down to the inside cd booklet shot of Llanas reclining in murky half-light, glass in hand, revisiting the ghosts of the past. Where he really nails the atmosphere is less with the spare, mostly acoustic insrumentation than with the vocals: instead of going down into his raw, emotionally charged baritone, he goes way up to the top of his register for a breathy, sometimes raspy, soulful timbre. Who knew he had that kind of range! While he’s still writing in an Americana rock vein, this is his soul record: there are hints of 70s artists like William Bell in his casually imploring, emotionally-charged vocals. Llanas plays acoustic guitar, backed tersely and tastefully by band of mostly fellow Milwaukeeans including guitarist Terry Vittone, bassist Matt Turner, Bukka Allen of the BoDeans on accordion, percussionist Ryan Schiedermayer and the one-man string section of Gary Tanin.

Oh, Celia sets the tone, a laid-back yet insistent come-on fueled by Allen’s lilting accordion. Shyne, a backbeat-driven breathy noir 60s pop nocturne, sounds like R. Dean Taylor but with digital production: “I want to dance with the devil’s daughter under the city lights,” Llanas croons, completely deadpan. The title track lingers wistfully but purposefully for just a little over two minutes, lowlit by accordion and gently ringing lead guitar.

The coyly titled Nobody Luvs Me has Tex-Mex tinges while the bittersweet, brooding Fare Thee Well works a western swing vein, underscored by Llannas’ powerful, low-register harmonies. By contrast, Janey is the most stark, minimalist song here: “It’s been a hell of a wonderful fight,” Llanas remarks, out on a late-night walk, trying to cool off. He follows it with the album’s most vivid cut, The Only One, contemplating a crushingly solitary 4 AM “hour of truth” against Vittone’s biting but judicious lead lines.

The song that harks most closely to the BoDeans’ anthemic style is the cynical Cherry O – “I never meant to hurt you as bad as I did,” whispers the vengeful cheater as the catchy chorus subsides. That’s the one song here that really screams out for a loud rock version. Llanas goes back to an understatedly noir, Orbison-inspired vein for Oh How I Loved You, then follows with the suspensefully quiet, symbolically-charged The Way Home. There’s also a cover of Jules Shear’s All Through the Night. This album doesn’t hit you over the head, but it’s exactly what it’s supposed to be: a good late-night listen.