Beat Circus‘ lavish new album These Wicked Things – streaming at Bandcamp – is a soundtrack to an imaginery western. It’s the hardest-rocking record the esteemed Innova Records label – a destination for some of this era’s most vital serious concert music – has ever put out. Rock is a new thing for them, but they couldn’t have picked a better group than this. Beat Circus were the real thing: they played under a big tent. And they’re back, over twenty-five years later, with a characteristically cinematic southwestern gothic concept album, arguably the best thing bandleader Brian Carpenter has ever put out. They’re playing the release show at around 8 PM on April 25 at National Sawdust. Coyly psychedelic, cinematic, faux-Italian instrumentalists Tredici Bacci open the night at 7; advance tix are $20, and even if the show goes two hours – which it probably will- there’s still time to get to the Bedford Ave. train station before the L shuts down.
Frontman/multi-instrumentalist Carpenter has turned back in a dark direction recently, after focusing on another project, the far more blithe and upbeat Ghost Train Orchestra for several years. This album is a delicious return to form. The album cover pretty much gives it away: a man and woman in black silhouette, standing under stormclouds between a highway billboard and a 1970 Ford Mustang convertible.
The core of the band comprises Andrew Stern on guitars, Paul Dilley on bass and Gavin McCarthy on drums. The opening track, Murieta’s Last Ride, is an oscillating, loopy, Peter Gunne Theme-ish instrumental. The title track has a menacing bolero sway enhanced by the swirling orchestral arrangement: that’s Abigale Reisman on violin, Emily Bookwalter on viola, Alec Spiegelman on bass clarinet and Brad Balliett on bassoon.
“I wonder what she was involved in,” Carrpenter croons, regarding the dead woman in Bad Motel, a pulsing, retro-60s garage-psych number “If you need some help, it’s the last place to go.” Just a Lost, Lost Dream comes across as a scampering, slide guitar-fueled tale on the Gun Club, with a better singer. Hey – that ghost on the highway reference won’t be lost on those who remember good 80s music. They follow that with the jaggedly orchestrated syncopation of the instrumental Crow Killer, which brings to mind fellow noir luminaries Big Lazy.
Spiegelman’s crescendoing tenor sax flurries offer slight hope for the hitchhiker in the briskly shuffing Gone, Gone, Gone. The Girl From the West Country comes across as a Morricone spaghetti western homage, as do the two Rosita themes here, a defly orchestrated tango, and then a swaying huapango with a defly spiraling acoustic guitar intro: imagine Giant Sand backed by a lush mariachi band..
“It”s 2 AM on the side of the road, looks like we’re not moving – I’ll take the wheel if you turn the key,” Carpenter suggests in the Lynchian waltz The Key. All the Pretty Horses is a tumbling instrumental for reverb guitar and drums. Bill Cole’s Chinese suona oboe gives Childe Rolande to the Dark Tower Came a keening, quavering eeriness, then goes absolutely nuts along with the guitars in The Evening Redness in the West.
The band hit a skronky sway in The Last Man ((Is There Anbyody Out There), a surreallistically swinging Lynchian blend of beat poetry and a Balkan-tinged chorale set to menacingly orchestrated desert rock. The concluding instrumental, Long Way Home is a similarly astigmatic mashup of spaghetti western sonics and loopily orchestrated minimalsim. Watch for this on the best albums of 2019 page here if we make it that far.