Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Pinataland – Songs for the Forgotten Future Vol. 2

Self-described Brooklyn “historical orchestrette” Pinataland’s claim to fame is that they’re a sort of musical guide to “weird America,” strange events, bizarre characters and secret histories, the ones everybody loves best. While the songs on this cd are attractive, pastoral and often lushly arranged, the stories they tell are sobering: Pinataland do not romanticize anything. Steel guitarist Gerald Menke is the lead instrumentalist here, adding a soaring, optimistic feel to much of the material. A string section is also featured on many of the songs along with tasteful, Americana-inflected guitar and piano from frontmen Doug Stone and David Wechsler. As with much of the material on Wechsler’s excellent solo cd Vacations, released last year, there’s a pensive, restless undercurrent here: the music may be bright and somewhat soothing but the darkness is never faraway. Rod Serling would approve.

 

The cd kicks off with Ashland, a swaying, upbeat country ballad whose narrator rides alongside Peter Levenda, a conspiracy writer who sees Kentucky as the nexus of all things evil, echoing what the band says, “that our inheritance as Americans are the unresolved questions of the past.” Continuing in a similar vein musically if not lyrically, The Fall of Sam Patch is a stirring tale of an early (1820s) anti-gentrification activist. The Ballad of John Banvard recounts the sad life of a Mississippi riverboat man turned painter who created several three-mile-long murals about his adventures. Banvard toured the US and ended up coming to New York, where he opened a museum but went broke trying to compete with PT Barnum. He died penniless in South Dakota, and his two three-mile murals have long since disappeared.

 

Fast with percussive piano from Wechsler, Dream of the New Mary recounts the ordeal of nutjob preacher John Murray Spear, who in 1853 took his flock to Lynn, Massachusetts where they worked on building a mechanical messiah. Spear claimed to be guided by spirits including Ben Franklin. Shortly after it was built, the machine was smashed by outraged citizens of the community. “ They’re trying to tell us something now,” the song’s narrator quizzically insists. The Sky Is Blue, the Highway Wide  is an oldtimey, tuba-propelled, somewhat Tom Waits-ish blues about a notorious 1984 double homicide in Mormon territory. Centralia concerns the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania, sitting above a rich vein of coal which was ignited by a fire at the town dump in 1962 and has been burning underground since. It was mostly evacuated in the 80s. Drummer Bill Gerstel (who also plays with rousing highway rockers the Sloe Guns) propels it with a subtle, live trip-hop beat while guest Curtis Eller’s banjo plinks ominously.

 

The backbeat-driven In Old New York imagines Manhattan before the Europeans came. “Meet me by the tallest tree where 34th and 5th will be,” Stone sings with a mix of optimism for what’s to come matched with regret for all that will be lost. The eerie, somewhat carnivalesque If Ice Were Warm is the tragic, true account of an Eskimo kidnapped and brought to New York with his father. The father died; the son discovered that his bones had been put on display at the Museum of Natural History, unsuccessfully tried to get them back and wandered between New York and Greenland afterward, in the process losing his native language but not learning enough English to fit in here. The Settlers scurries along on a fast shuffle beat, imagining what Mars colonizers would have in common with the American pioneers. The cd closes with the slow, exceptionally timely 6/8 ballad El Nino. History fans are in for a special treat here, but if the idea of “historical rock” scares you, don’t let it. These songs have a casual thoughtfulness and in many cases a sense of humor that matches their utterly unique subject matter. This cd takes awhile to get to know, but stick with it: the payoff at the end is worth your time.

September 8, 2008 - Posted by | Music, Reviews

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