Eclectic, Smart, High-Energy Keyboard Rock from Nat Osborn
There’s a subspecies of songwriter that wants to be Levon Helm. Possibly finding the inspiration after uncrating their dads’ Leon Russell and Joe Cocker records, they’ve set their sights on a modest and easily attainable goal: unthreatening, midtempo major-key Americana rock with a simple singalong vibe and not much else. What they hope to achieve from it isn’t clear: the era of big record labels keeping C-list sidemen like Helm and Russell in the fold, hoping to oneday see a second coming of Fleetwood Mac, ended decades ago. In the meantime, many of this new crop take up residency at open mics, hoping to gain some kind of foothold with their fellow dreamers.
While Nat Osborn plays catchy, warmly major-key, funky Americana rock, it would be a pity if he was to get pigeonholed as part of that crew, because while his music is just as retro, it’s vastly more exciting and edgy than theirs. Think Brother Joscephus on a smaller scale, or a younger East Coast version of Dr. John. The New Orleans influence is all over Osborn’s new album The King & the Clown, but it’s not cliches: his songwriting has bite. He’s playing the Mercury on May 7 at around 8; tix are $10 and still available as of today.
The album opens with Fire in the Wind, a blustery, catchy minor-key shuffle featuring Osborn’s horn section of Thomas Barber on trumpet, Adison Evans on baritone sax and Jake Handelman on trombone. “How does she hold so much anger in that little frame?” Osborn ponders. Dreaming Her Love Away slinks along, drummer Zach Nicita giving it a bit of a disco pulse in tandem with the London Souls’ Stu Mahan’s fat, undulating bassline. Little to the Left is an irresistibly hilarious portrait of a trustafarian girl:
She’s got teardrops tattooed to her eyes
But I’ve known her for awhile now and I’ve never seen her cry
She loves to wear leather but she hates when I eat meat
She’s a hardcore hippie vegan with snakeskin on her feet
And it only gets more savagely sarcastic from there.
No Reason builds a catchy retro 70s disco tune out of a latin groove, with tinges of hip-hop. By contrast, Yours Alone is an explosive, minor-key antiwar reggae tune driven by Adam Agati’s furious, distorted guitar. Siren works a creepy 60s noir cabaret pulse with Osborn’s tiptoeing piano up against Agati’s twangy Henry Mancini surf licks and a lurid horn chart. Subterfuge develops variations on a hypnotic, classically-tinged, impressionistic piano vamp, while So Wrong It’s Right bounces along with a jaunty roaring 20s vibe: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Matt Munisteri catalog.
One Chance plays off a seductive retro soul groove lit up by Osborn’s twinkling, nocturnal Rhodes piano. Ritalin picks up the pace (doesn’t it always – after all, it’s chemically identical to crystal meth) with tumbling salsa piano and the sobering mantra “we leave every child behind.” The title track makes an unexpectedly macabre and extremely successful detour into circus rock. The only dud here, Leave All This to Me shamelessly pilfers a familiar Radiohead riff and works it to death. The album ends with the Sinatra-influenced solo ballad Where Morning Used to Be. Osborn gets his fingers into a whole bunch of different pies here and comes up with good stuff pretty much every time; he sounds like he’s a lot of fun live.