A gorgeous collection of dark, quietly impassioned piano and guitar-based songs. Mark Steiner made a name for himself in New York as the leader of the popular art-rock bands Piker Ryan’s Folly (the “Folly” eventually fell by the wayside) and Kundera. Best known for his voice – Steiner’s casually ominous baritone is instantly recognizable, and has earned him well-deserved acclaim – he’s quietly built himself a cult following in Europe after having relocated to Norway a few years ago. Our loss is their gain.
Nisj, the opening track, harkens back to Steiner’s earlier, Nick Cave-influenced period, all shadow and tortured romance with its recurrent theme of “All I want, all I need is you.” The album’s second cut Unbearable, with its torchy, eerie intro is a dead ringer for legendary Pacific Northwest expats the Walkabouts, right down to the faux Carla Torgerson vocals that come in on the second verse. It’s a fast, relentless number that crescendos out of a tense, rapid verse to one of the catchiest refrains of the year. Wallspotting, driven by percussive piano, returns to the sexy desperation of the album’s opening cut. One can only wonder what a noir chanteuse like Little Annie or Neko Case could do with this one.
(Now She’s) Gone is a big audience favorite. Absolutely no one writes a haunting 6/8 ballad better than Steiner, and this is one of his best. Here, we finally get to hear his trademark reverb-laden, David Lynch-esque, tremolo-bar guitar, complemented brilliantly by Susan Mitchell’s sepulchral viola work. Drunk is another popular concert staple and also one of Steiner’s best songs, something akin to what Shane MacGowan might sound like had he grown up on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. Like most everything else on this album, the chorus is killer. The cd concludes with the “crooner version” of perhaps Steiner’s biggest hit to date, Cigarettes, another of his signature 6/8 ballads. As the title implies, this recording is more expansive and jazzier than the original, which makes it interesting, albeit not better than the absolutely riveting version Steiner plays live. To paraphrase B.B. King, sometimes a major or minor is all you need: this was probably a lot of fun to record, but it’s also kind of overkill. Still, as a whole this is an absolutely tremendous album, the finest work Steiner has done to date and based on his show here last month, his new material is just as good. A classic of its kind. Five bagels. Rye, which is probably pretty much all you can get in Norway. CDs are available in better European record stores and online. And like an increasing number of underground artists, Steiner has also released this on 180 gram vinyl. Given the cd’s tasteful production, one can only wonder how delectable the sonics on the record must be!