Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Ward White – Pulling Out

His finest hour. Pulling Out is not just one of the best albums of 2008, it’s one of the best albums of the decade. What Revolver was to Rubber Soul, what Armed Forces was to This Year’s Model, what Oops I Did It Again was to Baby One More Time (just kidding about those last two), Pulling Out is to Ward White’s previous album, Maybe but Probably Not. White is the best songwriter you’ve never heard of, although he’s not exactly under the radar: he’s been featured on NPR and always has his choice of A-list musicians to record with. His soaring voice has more than a few echoes of Jeff Buckley; his lyrics have a wickedly literate sensibility, loaded with puns and double entendres in the same manner as the artist he most closely resembles, Elvis Costello at his late 70s/early 80s peak. This is a brutally subtle, quietly ferocious album, as funny as it is furious.

The cd cover is nothing if not truth in advertising: it’s a visual joke, and it’s a good one, but it’s also savagely dismissive. White writes in character, so the matter of which numbers here are autobiographical and which aren’t is purely speculative. This is a loosely thematic collection of breakup songs, many of them seething with rage, alternately mystified and bemused at being surrounded by clueless idiots who just don’t get it. White’s a tremendously good electric guitarist, flavoring the songs with innumerable warm, jangly, twangy licks. The rhythm section of Catherine Popper on bass and Mark Stepro on drums pulses and grooves, and keyboardist Joe McGinty turns in his finest, most deviously textural work since his days with the Psychedelic Furs.

The cd’s opening track Beautiful Reward sets the tone. The title is a double entendre, a sardonic riff on the posthumous nature of fame. Over a tasty bed of slightly spiky, jangly guitar and lush keyboard textures, White’s narrator chronicles the easy lives of some unlikely characters from years past who marry painters or write “a book of lies, and everybody bought it.” The title track, which follows, is a gem:

Tanya has a tattoo of a dove
She said she did it out of love
That’s why it’s right over her heart
Sometimes it’s better not to start

And then the taunting begins, all sexual tension, very evocative of Costello’s fieriest stuff on This Year’s Model.

Building over a fast new wave beat to a killer chorus, Design for Living looks at relationships from a villain’s point of view: “In hell Jackson Pollock is smiling…he says I should stick to little girls with their little limbs.” The snide, vengeful Getting Along Is Easy chronicles a high-profile breakup: “Everything we do from now on will be on tv and I for one don’t like it.” Let It All Go is subtly hilarious, its melody gently mocking its sanctimonious, completely disingenuous narrator, who finally admits that “Elliot’s bar mitzvah was not the place” to address the matter of his mother-in-law’s drinking.

Me and the Girls continues in a tongue-in-cheek vein: everything was perfectly fine until some interloper guy came along and screwed everything up. Miserable, perhaps the finest track on the cd, tracks the telltale signs of an affair that was doomed from the start, that even without hindsight were obvious. Yet the couple succumb to temptation, or just a respite from loneliness: “It’s been long enough,” White wails on the chorus.

This album also happens to be something of a roman a clef: careful listeners familiar with the New York underground rock scene will discover some faces that look strikingly familiar, especially on the next track, The Ballad of Rawles Balls, a homage to the legendary, satirical cover band from hell. After that, Movie’s Over reverts to the bleak, jaundiced feel of the cd’s earlier material, its protagonist trying to find something to be grateful for even while the world is crumbling around him: “We’ve got a job to do and it’s ugly/I got a job to do so I’m lucky,” White recounts wistfully while strings play beautifully and sadly behind him. The cd wraps up with the Big Star-esque Turn It Up Captain (it helps if you know who the Captain is) and the rivetingly depressive Wrong Again, featuring Stepro on Rhodes:

Please let me go
I don’t belong
Here in this song again…
You think it’s all about you
You think it’s all about answers
You think it’s all that I can do
But you’re wrong

Fans of the pantheon of great songwriters: Costello, Aimee Mann, Steve Kilbey of the Church, LJ Murphy, Jenifer Jackson et al. will love this album. If there is anyone alive a hundred years from now, Ward White will be a star. And in the meantime, in an impressive stroke of generosity, you can visit White’s website and listen to not just this album in its entirety but also several of the other excellent cds he’s put out over the last few years.

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July 17, 2008 - Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. Steel Pulse came through Portland, Oregon this past Tuesday April 20th and even though they were missing 2 band members (stuck because of the ash caused by the volcano in Iceland) they were awesome! I love this band, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing them, because my friend Moonie was their lead guitarist for years. It’s always great to see a band that has no problem filling a 1500 capacity venue!

    Comment by Mike Ducey | April 24, 2010 | Reply


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