Isn’t it validating when an artist you’ve followed for ten years or longer puts out a new album – and it turns out to be the best thing they’ve ever done? You could make that case for Tom Warnick‘s latest release, Side Effects, streaming at Spotify. Warnick is a brilliant tunesmith, an evocative crooner, a devously witty keyboardist and has a deep back catalog of sardonic, often noir-tinged songs that goes back to the late 90s. In New York noir cirlees, he’s iconic. And there was a time that it wasn’t certain that he’d make it as far as as 2015. But a couple of well-documented brushes with the grim reaper didn’t stop him from pretty much picking up where he left off as one of this city’s most reliably entertaining performers.
The big news about this album is that Warnick’s band the World’s Fair – whom he equates here to “a box of bent baseball cards” – have a new secret weapon. Alto saxophonist Jason Reese has been more or less a fulltime member for the last few years, but this is the album where he finally gets to go front and center and he makes the absolute most of it: he can be balmy and carefree, or murderously smoky. When the band gets noir here – and they do that a lot – it’s Reese who’s usually the main culprit. They open with a revamped older tune, the wry, pun-infused title track, reinvented as a swinging soul number with Reese adding a break that brings to mind the Sonny Rollins solo on the Stones’ Waiting on a Friend.
Just when you think Doing My Time is a blithely stomping rockabilly-flavored romp, Warnick hits a swirly series of minor chords on the organ, underscoring the song’s existential unease. City of Women, one of Warnick’s signature songs and a big crowd-pleaser, pairs lead guitarist Ross Bonadonna’s snarling, surfy leads with Reese’s blue-flame riffage: it’s more retro noir than the horror-surf version the band used to roll out as an encore a couple of years back.
Long Way from Home is a surreal, Jim Jarmusch-esque travelogue set to loping C&W: “I will push open the emergency door, do you think it will make a sound?” Warnick asks snidely, “Excuse us while we disappear far from this burial ground.”
I’m a Stranger Here first took shape as a pulsing new wave tune, but it’s a swinging, bitterly reminiscent noir number here, Reese’s shadowy lines over Warnick’s eerily tiptoeing piano, with contrasting guitar jangle and wail from Bonadonna and John Sharples. As good as the rest of the album is, this one’s the high point, musically speaking at least. .
Lost in Place is another gem, an elegantly savage Elvis Costello-esque look back at navigating the tortuous corridors of high school, bassist Scott Anthony choosing his spots and hitting a few choice high notes. The band goes back to the noir for Old Man Blues, its moody reggae-tinged groove bringing to mind the Specials’ Ghost Town. In its first incarnation, Cop Car was a pretty straight-up blues; here, Warnick’s blackly amusing tale of a highway pot bust gets the full Peter Gunne treatment with a honking blue-smoke sax chart and eerily watery guitar that gives way to a jagged 70’s arenarock solo from Bonadonna.
The album ends on an unexpectedly upbeat note with the baroque pop ballad Fly Away and its surreal push-pull between teenage anomie and blissed-out ambience, and then the Tex-Mex bounce of Falling in Love Again. Look for this one somewhere on the best albums of 2015 page here in December assuming we get that far.