CD Review: Tris McCall – Let the Night Fall
As a tunesmith, keyboardist/songwriter Tris McCall (who also plays with Kerry Kennedy in indie powerpop supergroup Overlord) knows a catchy hook when he hears one. As a wordsmith, he is unsurpassed, on the same level as Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann or Paula Carino. If there’s anybody who knows the difference between sarcasm and irony, it’s this guy. There are loads of both here. His previous album was a refreshingly jaundiced excursion through trendoid indie Williamsburg; this time out, McCall turns an unsparing yet sometimes wistful gaze on the place he knows best, the state that actually once spawned a movement to make Born to Run its official anthem (death trap, suicide rap, we gotta get out, etc. – it happened). Springsteen hovers at the edge of the parking lot here, a distantly anthemic presence. Otherwise, the songs evoke Fountains of Wayne but with balls (hard to imagine, but try it), a defiant populism and much better tunes, McCall’s vocals casual, unaffected, often surprisingly cheery considering the underlying grimness.
The opening cut, WFMU builds from catchy trip-hop to a blazing chorus metaphorically loaded with unease, one rapidfire mot juste or double entendre after another. “The radio’s damnable when it’s programmable” is the keystone. At the end, McCall sends out friendly shout-outs not only to the long-running independent New Jersey station but also to WSOU (who knew?), WBGO, WFUV and even distant WPRN, halfway to Cape May. The Throwaway – “cut my neck and I bleed gasoline” – wonders why the neighborhood emo kids won’t accept him as one of their own, considering that all of them should have had the sense to get out, while The Ballad of Frank Vinieri harrowingly memorializes an up-and-coming populist ground down by the gentrifiers of Jungleland. Sugar Nobody Wants, an atmospheric nocturne, pays homage to the age-old anomie-driven sport of trespassing. The title track, an 80s-inflected powerpop stomp, paints a snide Fourth of July tableau set “where minutemen jump back and feign surprise when they get the tax bill.”
The centerpiece of the album, First World, Third Rate is a majestic, metaphorically charged kiss-off from a mallrat stuck working some ineffable fast-food salad bar. The poor kid’s life has been so barren that the best things he’s managed to live to eulogize are a Thomas Wolfe-esque litany of scuzzy chain restaurants – as the faux-Meatloaf arrangement grows more and more bombastic, an exuberant choir yells out their names in perfect time. It makes even more sense in the context of the next cut, You’re Dead After School, a creepy new wave-ish reminiscence of close encounters with pedophiles. Midnight (Now Approaching) follows with its guitars blasting, sort of a Meeting Across the River in reverse (this one’s actually set on the Staten Island Ferry), electric with both excitement and maybe imminent doom.
A gentle country song on the surface, Mountainside has the hometown folks contemplating a prodigal son’s return with bated breath – and cemetery plot ready, while We Could Be Killers layers one vintage synth patch over another in a big Pulp-style pop end-of-the-world epic. The album closes, coming full circle, with a hallucinatory early-morning roadside tableau. This one’s going to show up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year, including here. Tris McCall plays the Rockwood at 7 PM solo on piano on March 30, a good place for him to run through the album’s lone instrumental, a clever baroque-rock interlude.