Bent Nights

Last year I made the mistake of proclaiming Ellen Rosner’s Count to 3 the masterpiece of the year in my March review. Then a month later I had to bite my tongue and make an identical statement about the Marvin Tate D-Settlement’s American Icons. By the time Strain Busy Sky’s Running with the Sun hit my ears I had to admit that I looked foolish. Al Rose’s new Gravity of Crow tempts me in the same way as Rosner, the D-Settlement, and S.B.S. and you’ll have to forgive my eagerness. But it’s all Rose’s fault.

Yeah, he surrounds himself with wonderful musicians (Steve Hashimoto on bass, Steve Doyle and Maury Smith on guitars, Carter Luke on keyboards, Sarah Allen on drums, and Laura Blye distinctively on vocals) but Gravity has so much meat and wit (both musically and lyrically) that it comes across as an unexpected epic. As a composer, Rose’s songs aren’t obvious in the least, but what you get from him (vocally) is the feel of the songs. Better still is the immediacy of the production, especially in how Rose’s vocals are mixed to the front. He sounds like he’s singing right in your ear and the effect is not only compelling but lacerating. “Open Wide” is full of regret and resentment, and “Shut,” though its arrangement is spare and witty, despite its humor has a distinct edge. “All the Fixin’s,” the album’s opener, with its gorgeously elegant musical layers and bric-a-brac lyrics is both engagingly seductive and disarmingly catchy.

But “Random Hollow Diesel Train” is Gravity’s jagged jewel. A scathing indictment of everything that’s wrong NOW, on “Hollow” Rose summons up the kind of sweaty impatient anger that used to belong solely to Mr. B. Dylan. But where Dylan’s anger on say “Hurricane” was pointed at a single circumstance, Rose’s vitriol fans out to include religion, politics, and big money. “It’s either a good nightmare or a bad dream,” he snarls and the chorus is a brilliant blunt joke; “Shit like this you can’t make up.” “Slightly less than half the voters voted with their ass…” is Rose’s take on the last presidential election. But when he calls President Bush a “fratboy who can’t read” in a song with “suicide bombers” and “greedy leaders bleeding sleaze” tucked in the lyrics he gets beyond topical debate and into the horror of reality. “Hollow,” with Rose’s clenched rage is the story of our times and it’s scary not because of his cynicism but because our current state is undeniably precarious and fucked up. Folk, punk, or pop, what “Hollow” is as a musical style is irrelevant. As a document of where we are in history it speaks not only for itself, but also for us.

— Vern Hester, Windy City Times, March 12, 2003