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No New Abnormal

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Ward White’s Leonard at the Audit – Best Rock Record of 2020 So Far

Since the early zeros, songwriter Ward White has been on a creative tear matched by few other artists, ever. In context: Bowie in the 70s; Aretha in the 60s; Elvis Costello from 1977 to about 1985; and Steve Wynn pretty much since birth. Hall of fame company. And White just doesn’t stop: his tenth and latest album, Leonard at the Audit, is streaming at Bandcamp. In terms of searingly literary lyricism set to imaginative, catchy rock changes, White is pretty much unsurpassed these days.

This particular record is probably the closest thing to White’s sinister nonlinear song cycle Bob – rated best rock record of the year here in 2013 – that he’s released since then. The album title reflects parallel narratives: Leonard Cohen’s 1960s flirtation with Scientology, and a seemingly mundane but actually much more grim story that looks back to the deadly geopolitics of the Bob record. Is this a sequel? Maybe.

The opening track, Bubble and Squeak, is White at the top of his imagistic, slashing game. A creepy cast of characters from the deep state along with an undertaker’s assistant make their entrance, none of them identified by name. “If you tangle with the Pharisees, be prepared to give up a son,” White warns. Musically, this sounds like the Police, built around a recurring guitar figure that White calls “seasick.” The band – Andrew Bird keyboardist Tyler Chester, Jakob Dylan drummer Mark Stepro and bassist John Spiker – maintain a low-key new wave pulse alongside him.

White goes for a more lush, ornate, briskly backbeat-driven feel in Not the Half, probably the only song to date to make the connection between Dylan Thomas final post-barroom collapse and lockdown-era respirator deaths. Above the watery web of guitars, the story references a hostage but also issues of artistic posterity or lack thereof.

The voice of a seemingly stoned and enlightenment-fixated Cohen alternates with someone whose marriage is going to hell on the express track in the similarly enveloping, jangly Ice Capades – or maybe it’s just a single narrator. The journey to the center of White’s songs is always a challenge, but an irresistible one.

Awash in hazy mellotron and icy chorus-box guitar, the Pink Floyd-inflected title track weighs the sacred against the profane – alongside what might or might not be a plane crash. The next song’s “Kleenex/Phoenix” rhyme is one of White’s funniest lyrical moments ever, and the litany of 70s references afterward are just as amusing, as is the central guitar hook – in a skeletal art-rock song about a contract killing, no less.

Likewise, the opening clang of Edmund Fitzgerald Is a Wreck (DAMN, White nails everything 70s here!), a sick, distantly late Beatlesque, characteristically image-rich Wisconsin death trip.

The backdrop shifts ten years forward into allusive 80s powerballadry with Try Me. The suspense and the black humor are relentless:

I was talking to the funeral director
Asking him how much this might all cost
He said “It’s hard to put a price on a relationship with God”
I said “Try me”

The surrealism reaches fever pitch in Dreaming of Dentistry, a druggy El Lay tableau akin to Floyd doing a sneering take on 70s lounge-pop with more than a hint of southwestern gothic. Dead People Fucking is one of White’s more Costelloesque numbers, referencing James Joyce, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski, and others with wry imagery that’s part Shakespeare, part Warren Zevon.

White sets the ominous gambling metaphors of You Gotta Have a System to a slow, lingering sway:

Lucky with queens, but not in spades
I told you to hit me!
Diamonds retreat where the heart invades
You might as well double down

He winds up the record with the Bowie-esque Pornographic Ennui, connecting the bloody dots between dirty pix and police state ruthlessness:

He was a man who liked machines;
On cocaine it was guns, on beer, anything that runs on gasoline

If it still makes sense for there to be such a thing as a music blog in December 2020 – let’s hope there is – you’ll see this again, high on the best albums of the year list.

Another Withering Lyrical Rock Masterpiece by Ward White

It’s time we put Ward White up there in the pantheon with Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson, Rachelle Garniez, Steve Wynn, Ray Davies and any other first-ballot hall of famer you can think of. Over the last fifteen years or so, the now LA-based White been on a creative tear to rival any one of those songwriting icons. Bowie’s work in the 70s is a good comparison, although where the Thin White Duke would reinvent himself just about every year, White has crystallized a classic three-minute janglerock sound, often veering off to the psychedelic side. 

Lyrically speaking, nobody writes more compelling, allusively macabre narratives. The devil is always in the details: in this case, the crack in the porcelain, the kind of soap in the bathroom, the objects on either side of where the dead bird has fallen out of the sky. White’s 2013 release Bob got the pick for best album of the year here, but that might just as easily be said for anything he’s put out since, including his latest one, Diminish, streaming at Bandcamp. As usual, White keeps his songs short, everything less than five minutes, some less than three. White plays all the guitars, elegantly and tersely, joined by keyboardist Tyler Chester and the low-key rhythm section of bassist John Spiker and drummer Mark Stepro.

It opens with Titans, its plotline as inscrutable as its melody is straightforward and hard-hitting. Twin guitar leads roar up to a menacing, chromatic chorus: it’s one of White’s louder numbers. An infant’s death and a possible terrorist attack may be related, or just parallel events. “This is no time for dreams,” is the mantra: welcome to the end of the teens, USA.

Noise on 21, a punchy backbeat anthem with blippy organ, is a classic White urban tableau, the yuppies upstairs staying up late just to seal another sordid deal while the narrator reaches breaking point: “Some things that you should never see are happy in the shadows, now it’s time to go home.”

Back to the End, with its cruelly Beatlesque chorus-box guitar, is a throwback to White’s late 60s psych-pop period a few years ago, a characteristically allusive, twisted scenario tracing the ugly logic of a S&M scenario: “Cannibals don’t waste their time with darkening the roux.”

Canopy, a brief, catchy number with uneasily warpy 80s synth, is one of the more unselfconsciously poetic songs in White’s catalog, contemplating endings from contrasting viewpoints

Awash in jangle and starry synth orchestration, Flood paints a grim picture of dysfunction on a Hollywood film set, with a shout to Baudelaire:

Send a dozen roses up to Noah’s favorite failures
Don’t believe the rumors of a plague upon this town
This bar never closes and it’s filled with drunken sailors
For every one, an albatross who should have let him drown

Watch the Hands is the great lost track from Elvis Costello’s Armed Forces: “Your best laid plans will never bite you in the ass unless your turn your back and leave them starving,” the child killer taunts.

With White’s lingering, detfly textured guitar multitracks, Cowboy could be the most gorgeous, bittersweetly surreal number here. It’s White’s La Chute:

Tell Bob I’m not busy being born, or dying, just alive
Some flights leave too early out of Kennedy
And some pricks play the Castro card for years

White puts a fresh spin on an old myth in Sodom, bristling with Syd Barrett-ish changes, sardonic backing vocals and glammy guitars.

Some call us sacrilegious
The chafed and the chosen few
You polish your barnyard idol
I’ll tarnish the ewe

Alternately balmy and burning, Every Night I Have This Dream is another of the murder ballads White is unsurpassed at – it’s not clear whether this is really a dream or not:

Double nickels all the way
I can’t afford to lose the day
They pop that trunk trunk and we are done, and I’m not going out that way

White puts a sinister edge on a mashup of blithe Bacharach 60s bossa-pop and watery, artsy Beatlesque jangle in Uncle Bob (Akron), the album’s most corrosively cynical number. That’s hardly a surprise, considering it’s a tale from the campaign trail told by the manager of a candidate who turns out to be something less than ideal

The album’s final cut is The Living End, a somber, mostly acoustic portrait of defeat as harrowingly detailed as Richard Thompson’s Withered and Died:

Buried with your artifacts
Pharaoh’s favorite son
Too late to think of what you’ll do with what you’ve done

You’ll see this in a few days on the best albums of 2018 page.

Ward White’s As Consolation: Best Rock Record of 2017

Ward White’s album Bob topped the list of best releases of 2013 here. So it’s hardly a surprise that his latest album As Consolation is by far the best rock record released this year. Most artists who play loud, troubling, psychedelic music usually get quieter and more pensive as the years go by. but since the early zeros, White has gone in the opposite direction.

The new album – streaming at Bandcamp –  isn’t quite as surreal as Bob, but Bob is unlike any other record ever made, a disjointed whirlwind murder mystery psychedelic lit-rock suite. Its closest comparisons are not albums but Russell Banks novels and David Cronenberg films. As Consolation, on the other hand, does not seem to have a central storyline  – other than a relentlessly grim cynicism that crosses the line into sadism and the macabre. White’s worldview has never been more bleak – yet there’s never been this much unselfconscious joie de vivre in his music.

He’s a one-man guitar army here with his lavish but tersely arranged multitracks – for what it’s worth, he’s also an excellent bass player (that was his axe in the legendary Rawles Balls). This time around he’s fallen in love with a vintage analog delay pedal, for an eerie, watery effect akin to running his axe through a Leslie speaker. Now based in Los Angeles after a long stint in New York, he’s joined by Tyler Chester, who plays a museum’s worth of vintage keyboards (or clever digital facsimiles) – he turns out to be a sort of a left coast Joe McGinty, a longtime White collaborator who put out a fantastic album with him in 2009. Mark Stepro, who played on White’s withering 2008 album Pulling Out, returns to the drum chair.

Overarching narrative or not, there are characters who make multiple appearances in these allusively grisly, meticulously detailed narratives. One is the titular girl in Here’s What Happened to Heidi, the opening track. As with Bob, the events are anything but clear. Is this being told from the point of view of a corpse? A murder victim? “”Please tell me it’s not morning yet,” someone pleads again and again.

It’s rewarding to see White getting back in touch with the psychedelia and heavy rock he grew up with as a kid in Connecticut: there are more textures and more stylistic leaps than ever before in what has become a back catalog that ranks with guys like Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello.

The murderously catchy, organ-infused Crater is one of the most straightforwardly sinister cuts here – an incriminating envelope is involved. “Under the stone, don’t fight it, you’ll be at home,” White intones nonchalantly as the band gallops behind him.

A mashup of psychedelic soul and Abbey Road Beatles, Dude is White at his sardonic best:

Girls in California call me dude.
It’s non-negotiable
As smirks and disapproval misconstrued

“A few dreams, that much you’re owed,” White muses to the girl passed out on the sofa as Rhodes piano echoes uneasily in the miniature that serves as the album’s title track. Then he picks up the pace immediately with Spurs, its treacherous western vacation plotline shifting suddenly and strangely between a hard-hitting, syncopated pulse and lushly ethereal cinematics. “The paralyzing fear that we’re alone makes us cling to the humdrum,” White asserts: the rhyme that follows is too good to give away. It’s definitely a first in rock history.

Stepro flurries like Keith Moon throughout Hotel, a mashup of mod and new wave.

The fumes are playing havoc with your senses
You never listened before
Why would you listen now?

We never find out what Heidi, making a reappearance here, has to say to her assailant; White’s tongue-in-cheek, bluesy guitar solo adds a blackly amusing tinge.

White goes to the top of his formidable vocal range in Dog Tags, the narrator telling someone who was “naked on the fire escape: – his killer, maybe? – not to bother to look for the body, over an artfullly lingering remake of Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1. Then the music picks up with a blast of Beatles and Bowie in Parking Lot: “Frozen onfire in the parking lot, better hold your breath til I count to ten again,” White instructs.

With its tense, broken guitar chords and smoky organ, Stay Low is the most distinctly Lynchian song here: it wouldn’t be out of place in the Charming Disaster catalog. The raging guitars of Coffee Maker echo the sonics on his 2014 release Ward White Is the Matador, a pair of accomplices growing more desperate by the hour. The way White caps off his guitar solo is as cruel as it is priceless.

The psychedelic Twin Peaks narrative Which Pain takes place in a torture chamber: “Too late to turn back now, not too big to fail,” a vindictive narrator tells his victim. More echoes of early-70s Bowie return in The Crows, another chilling tale from beyond the grave. “Sadness will make you insane, leave your cake out in the rain,” White reminds: that’s among the most telling of the many wry and far more subtle lyrical references here. The album closes with Weekend Porsche, a surreal soundscape that slowly coalesces into a reprise of that glam theme. It’s the first instrumental White’s ever recorded and the Eclipse to this Dark Side of the Moon.