Gothic Americana crooner Jaye Bartell sings in a deadpan but rather guarded baritone. He plays with a ton of reverb on his guitar, whether with a steady clang or more sparsely. His songs don’t typically follow any kind of predictable verse/chorus pattern. On his latest album, In a Time of Trouble, a Wild Exultation – streaming at Bandcamp – he often just vamps along on a couple of major chords, vintage Velvets style. Which has a lulling effect…until he gets to the punchline, or the suspense in his hauntingly imagistic narratives builds to breaking point. Bartell is off on a long European tour next month; fans of dark lyrical rock in his adopted Greenpoint neighborhood can catch him Friday night, Dec 28 at around 9 at Troost.
Throughout Bartell’s work, the devil is in the details. “Think I picked a bad time to have a good time, hanging upside down,” he muses in the album’s opening track. “My confetti is stuck in the garden…the water’s coming higher than the edges.” Definitely not a wild exultation,
“Come walk in the dead grass,” Bartell instructs, “I have come to ruin you; I have come to room with you,” he announces, somewhat hesitatingly, in CawCawCaw. He leaves the monologue without a response: is he that heavily symbolic bird, or talking to the bird, or somebody else? That sensibility is what draws you into his songs. And he keeps you guessing – even as an image jumps out at you, it could be a red herring.
Angel Olsen sings calm harmonies in Give Erin a Compliment (So Kind). Both the vocals and the song’s country stroll bring to mind the late, great Joe Ben Plummer and his band, downtown New York cult favorites Douce Gimlet. The sparse arrangement of Wilderness – just a couple of jangly guitar tracks, lightly brushed drums and simple bass – is much the same. Like everything Bartell does, it works on many levels. Somewhere out there in the woods, “There must be somebody warm enough to mistake for love, somebody cold enough to just take some.”
The album’s most chilling number is Swim Colleen. Shifting back and forth between waltz time, Bartell keeps the suspense going most of the way through. On the surface, it’s a beach tableau, but of course there are unexpected depths:
Scream at the waves
The waves scream back
There’s no ship coming in
There never has been
Swim, Colleen, swim
Army of One is Bartell at his most self-effacingly wry – does General Superego have it in for loafing Private Ego? Contrastingly, Mercy seems to be pretty straightforward – it’s akin to Jonathan Richman, or Lee Feldman at his most faux-naive. Bartell builds another brooding waterside scenario in the otherwise gentle Ferry Boat: it’s easy to imagine Nico singing it on Chelsea Girl.
“I can’t think of anyone else with whom I’d ever go out of doors,” Bartell insists in Out of Doors – but who wants to date an agoraphobic, right? The methodically swaying, Laurel Canyon psych-tinged Feeling Better Pilgrim is much the same – this guy may be ok, but a lot of people (water imagery alert!) aren’t. The final cut is If I Am Only For Myself Then What Am I, which, with delicate glockenspiel in the background, offers a sliver of hope. E
Earlier in the fall, at Bartell’s most recent gig at Troost – his home base between tours – he sang much more powerfully, even dramatically, than he does in the studio. This acoustic set mixed up some of the more low-key numbers from this album and a couple of sepulchral tales from his fantastic 2016 release, Loyalty. But the high point might have been an absolutely chilling take of the Brecht/Weill classic September Song, reinvented with more than a hint of noir bolero. “That was magic,” one spectator in the crowd murmured afterward.