Now that the world has made its way out of post-Saturnalia mode, this is as good a time as any to catch up on some of the albums that should have been covered here last year but weren’t. Case in point: Lee Feldman’s absolutely brilliant, chilling Album No. 4: Trying To Put The Things Together That Never Been Together Before. Feldman is a terrifically eclectic pianist, equally at home with Bach or jazz as with the elegant art-rock songs he’s been writing since the 90s. His animated musical Starboy is a classic, a charmingly witty piece of vintage 80s style performance art. His late-2011 collaboration with cellist Noah Hoffeld, Sacred Time, was a richly tuneful detour into traditional Jewish instrumental themes that the duo transformed into what could be termed indie classical music (or something that John Zorn would put out on Tzadik). This is a return to original songcraft, and it stands with the best Feldman has ever done, which is saying a lot. The whole thing is streaming at his Bandcamp page along with several of his other albums, going all the way back to 1996’s Living It All Wrong.
This one’s a continuation of the themes Feldman explored on his 2007 album I’ve Forgotten Everything, an understatedly haunting portrait of alienation and disorientation brought on perhaps by age, perhaps by other factors, possibly in combination. Here as well as there, Feldman writes in the voice of a naif, echoed in his clear, bright, deceptively simple vocals and melodic hooks. Where I’ve Forgotten Everything mined an austere art-rock vibe, this one’s a much more ornate, stylistically diverse chamber-pop effort with terse horn charts and a string section.
The album peaks immediately with a surreal, Middle Eastern tinged art-rock waltz spiced with Carol Lipnik’s creepy, swooping vocals. Whoooah, this ride is going way too fast, gotta stop the machine and get off! The abruptness with which the narrator puts an end to some pretty spectacular fireworks is telling, and sets the stage for the rest of the story. It is not a happy one, and in a Faulknerian sense, this tale told by an idiot capsulizes our own present danger.
The second track is a red herring and a throwaway. Feldman picks up where he left off with That’s The Way the World Used to Work, an allusive ontogeny-recapitulates-philogeny theme set to lush, woodwind-enhanced chamber pop. River, a latin-tinged bounce, downplays the lyrics’ loaded symbolism. The hippie eco-pop of Trees Are People Too could be a children’s song, a vibe that flips 180 degrees on The Magician, a wistful ballad: Pete Galub’s distantly majestic lead guitar lowlights the mantra “I’m an outsider.”
I Remember The Night captures a family meeting at a particularly serious moment, in the Twilight Zone. An elegant piano waltz, Do You Want to Dance mingles gospel piano with a lyric that descends from carefree to absolutely miserable in seconds flat. The most psychedelic of all the tracks is the ninth one (the title is absurdly long, for a reason), a blend of trip-hop, Terry Riley and Beat Crazy-era Joe Jackson that seems to chronicle fragments from what’s essentially been a wasted life.
On the lullaby that follows, the narrator explains to the infant that “when you are ready to run, it’s me you’ll be running from.” The album’s creepiest track is Empty Room, the drums (guessing that’s the Universal Thump’s Adam D Gold behind the kit) shifting around its echoey, arrythmic ambience, a portrait of isolation and defeat. In typical Feldman fashion, that reaches a peak with the blithe madness of Hamfest: over a casually comfortable Rhodes piano groove, the narrator (lapsing in and out of outer-borough accent) announces how “I play the trumpet just like Emperor Hirohito/I try to play the books I read but I never play repeato.” The Party’s Over has the same kind of disconcerting, disassociative blitheness: “The ship is sinking and the fish are friendly, and I’ve been thinking that I don’t like fish,” the protagonist reflects. The album ends with Thanks and its characteristically simple yet crushing sadness. In just a few words and a few major chords, Feldman delivers a wallop. The star-studded band behind Feldman, besides Lipnik, Galub and Gold, includes Hoffeld on cello, Nadia Sirota on viola, Doug Wieselman on reeds, keyboardists Greta Gertler, Dan Bryk and Glenn Patscha, trombonist Clark Gayton, bassist Byron Isaacs and singer Amy Allison among others.