Some artists get overlooked if they aren’t playing shows regularly, an unfair disadvantage to say the least. George Usher and Lisa Burns earned their cred playing all over New York beginning as far back as the 80s. There’s a harrowing backstory and a happy ending, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, behind their album The Last Day of Winter (streaming at Spotify).
Usher earned iconic status as a powerpop songwriter and bandleader with House of Usher, Beat Rodeo and other groups dating from the CBGB days (and wrote the title track of Laura Cantrell‘s classic 2000 debut album, Not the Tremblin’ Kind). Burns also enjoys an avid cult following as an innovative crafter and reinterpreter of classic soul, powerpop and occasionally psychedelic sounds. While making a successful recovery from cancer, Usher decided to reinvent himself as a lyricist since he was too debilitated to play, and Burns set those lyrics to music. The result is a pensive, often plantive, richly arranged blend of janglerock, powerpop, Americana and new wave, one of the best albums of 2015.
Happily, Usher’s back to playing his guitar, and also piano on this album. The opening track, Wake Me When Tomorrow’s Here has the soaring crescendos of the Church, Burns’ soulful, vibrato-heavy harmonies mingling with Usher’s understatedly triumphant vocals: he’s been through a lot. Burns widens that vibrato all the way in the vintage C&W-tinged ballad Depression Glass, a vividly downcast Flyover America tableau. More Than That I Cannot Say amps up the late 60s folk-rock that Burns does so well.
Lost in Translation has a slow, hazy sway that’s part Beatles, part pastoral Pink Floyd, spiced with Usher’s spiky, minimalist piano accents. The wrly shuffling My Precious Wisdom gives Usher a platform to stay at the keys and ripple through some ragtime. If It Ever Comes to Pass is the album’s best track, a snarling minor-key, darkly new wave-tinged gem fueled by Mark Sidgwick’s lead guitar. The guy/girl harmonies bring to mind legendary late 90s/early zeros New York band DollHouse.
Usher airs out an unexpectedly powerful upper register on another real gem, the brooding, metaphorically charged honkytonk ballad Dark Blue Room, lowlit by Jonathan Gregg’s high lonesome pedal steel. Then Usher returns to the 88s as Burns sings the angst-fueled Wasn’t Born to Belong: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Matt Keating catalog.
Drummer Wylie Wirth’s elegant brushwork pushes the gorgeous, ominously bittersweet Never Ever Land while Usher handles its big, restless acoustic guitar chords: “It’s a cloudy dream and a slow return when the fire has nowhere to burn,” Usher and Burns warn. Then they go back to channeling the Church in 80s folk-rock mode in the understatedly savage kiss-off anthem The World That Rested on Your Word. The album’s creepiest track is The Ferryman’s Name, evoking both the Fab Four and CSNY with its harmonies and surreallistic death imagery. The album winds up with its magnificently saturnine – and ultimately hopeful – title track, Jeff Hermanson’s horn sailing over Claudia Chopek’s stark string arrangement.
Musically speaking, this is arguably the strongest collection of tunes Burns has ever written, pretty impressive for someone who’s been at it as long as she has. Usher himself has been recording since the 60s, beginning as a pop prodigy in his native Cleveland. Fun factoid: as a kid, he was known to take credit – or at least not deny credit – for Gary Puckett’s hits, since they were credited to one G. Usher (the unrelated producer Gary Usher). But he’s a generation younger than McCartney and Jagger and the rest of the guys from that era. His voice may have weathered a smidge, but it’s still strong. Long may it resonate.