But You’ve Always Been The Caretaker, the new album by New York’s own Silent League opens with a nascent instrumental songlet, fittingly titled “Egg Shaped.” If you strain, you can discern horns and a couple of organs, possibly strings and a wash of cymbals. Behind that upwelling of music, there is a curious mechanical whir that recalls a spinning wheel or a loom, the pumping, churning sound of a human laboring at an inefficient machine.
Justin Russo, the band’s primary architect, probably isn’t precious enough to open his latest effort with a musical metaphor, a lens through which to view the album that follows, but he’s invested enough in the listener’s experience that he wouldn’t discount that reading out of hand.That sound of work, the audible proof of the grinding hand of the creator, complicates and even argues with the melodious tones—and that’s the point.This aesthetic of complimentary conflict jibes well with a band that makes euphoric orchestral rock and calls itself The Silent League.
When I met up with Russo on a frigid night in Williamsburg, he reminded me of the young Al Pacino in Godfather II, with dark, sensitive eyes and, behind them, an intelligence so acute it borders on sinister.
Born and raised in Hopewell Junction, N.Y., Russo’s childhood home still holds remarkable sway over him; many of these songs take place in this neglected New York in the shadow of The City. “I remember wandering through Spanish Harlem one night where there were guys taking a car apart with a chainsaw and I’ve still never been as afraid here as I have been in some towns upstate,” he says. Fittingly, he returned with his band to track the record at a studio upstate where “they had every kind of mic imaginable, many hung from weird spots in the rafters or mounted in tin cans and if you were very, very good, they would let you in to the special sub-basement vault where all sorts of weird decrepit machines were kept and maybe only a handful of notes worked on them but if those notes fell in the key you were working in, man, you were in heaven.”
Sonically, it’s a massive, sweeping record.
Russo’s voice is high but rich, with the tenderness and earnest good humor of a solo Harry Nilsson. At times, it quavers like Willie Nelson’s on Stardust, where his lilt is proof of strength, not a sign of weakness. More than once, it calls to mind Gene Wilder’s indelible turn as Willy Wonka in the Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.Standard rock arrangements are just the skeleton for lavish ornamentation with live strings and horns, choral vocals, reedy percussive acoustic, electric and acoustic piano, layers of organs and synths, harp, mandolin, bells, samples and is that autoharp? Mellotron? Chamberlin? With its stereo pans and ghosted vocals, it’s the headphone equivalent of an everlasting gobstopper.
But digital instruments and recording software have made it easy to make, in the comfort and/or dank squalor of your own bedroom studio, an album as ornate and dazzling as the Waterford Crystal Times Square New Year’s Eve Ball… and just as hollow and meaningless.
Russo’s arrangements, as neurotically detailed as sailing ships built into bottles, don’t just prop up alienated and alienating para noid
Thom Yorke mumblings. His lyrics have been subject to the same ruthless perfectionist scrutiny.Though occasionally elliptical or open-ended, they are never half-baked and rarely adhere to their first meaning.The album title sounds like a plea to a retreating lover; the opener title sounds vaguely auspicious. Both titles converge in the song “There is a Caretaker in the Woods,” which flowers open gloriously with electric piano, synth and a chorus of backing vocals like a choir of angels.When Russo enters, he sings softly and gently, as if lulling a child to sleep. But the lyrics are a dark, thrilling revelation, complicating the song to the extent that it becomes as unsettling as it first appeared comforting.
“Half blind but allowed to drive/ The camper that he lived inside/ A hollow metal swan’s/ egg with a door/ An overgrowth of fir and oak/ Crumb cake and a boiled bird/ He’d start the day without a word/ The grandkids helped him train the chainsaw down/ With every tree he’d hack and burn/ He’d spit and measure something on the ground.”
The caretaker isn’t a lover but an alienated old man and it’s only the property he’s caretaking (and of course, that concept is challenged) at the expense of all human relations. “Egg-shaped” refers not to a vessel in which life begins, but the decrepit camper in which the man’s life shrivels to its conclusion. By the end of the song, the camper is “too rotted-out to ever tow away.”
Russo lances not just the countryside’s retreating promise of happiness but also the dream of transformation through rock ‘n’ roll. There is no solace in substances, no love in love, no future in the future and not even any comfort in nostalgia for your childhood home. Somehow “sometimes I think I’ve got my dosage figured out” is the most upbeat line sung over this glorious, even heavenly music. So where is the heaven of chocolate rivers and marshmallow meadows we’re obviously hearing the instrumentation to? Well, if searching for it and failing yields albums dense with alternating layers of beauty and decay like this one, I hope The Silent League never gets there.
The Silent League
Jan. 16, Gramercy Theatre, 127 E. 23rd St. (betw. Park & Lexington Aves.), 212-614-6847; 9, $18.