Lost in the content craze of streaming services – that “golden age of TV” stuff – has been an appreciation for the art form that is the concept album. Where American society has embraced chaptered storytelling like never before in the world of video, it has virtually abandoned the narrative in music.
Largely we are trafficking in single songs, like dipping into a single episode of a 10-part series and calling it good. But works like KGFREEZE’s new “Phalanges” demand that we pay closer attention to the album format.
Those who have followed Kyle Gervais’ career – from the pop-punk fun of Glory Trap to the introspective rock of Cosades and Grand Hotel to the number of sprawling works he has released as the solo project KGFREEZE – know that he has a frenetic talent for creating insistent pieces that gnaw at you. He can appreciate and craft melody, but it comes with a caustic edge, a darkness fueled by irony and cynicism.
With “Phalanges,” he strips everything away for the first time, using just an acoustic guitar, his vocals, and a little bit of reverb to explore a character Gervais has decided to embody, a down-on-his luck Floridian singer-songwriter working the stages of dead-end bars up the coast from his current hometown of Key West.
Gervais has sort of tried out this persona in a couple of places before. The adopted southern accent and drawl sounds a lot like the derpy voice that opens “Bark for Me, Tom” off 2017’s “Scapegoat,” and on “Egomaniac,” from 2018, we have a song called “Key West,” and a title track where the protagonist tells us he’s “written some of the best songs you never heard,” which smacks of the naked bravado this character oozes.
Yet this Phalanges character is a loser, by any societal definition. Even the songs we hear aren’t the kinds of artfully done, fingerpicking-filled singer-songwriter pieces a solo acoustic record might normally feature, but rather the bones of rock and pop and funk songs. If only this guy could get a band to play them.
On “The Best of Lori Madison,” a great call-out to the excellent HBO drama “The Deuce,” we get the shallow sentiment that a character in a TV show has the same name as his ex, and that made him nostalgic, but he remembers: “You always wished I’d talk about anything else, other than music / And myself / And stop writing songs about writing songs and how good I am at writing songs / Because it’s better to show, not tell.”
And that’s what Gervais does best here: lay his character open to be flayed, especially with two monologues he delivers before an imagined audience. In the first, he tells a three-minute rambling story about a time he was supposed to take his kid to his baseball game, on the kid’s birthday, but instead took him to a burger joint so he could drink beers with his friends.
His wife ended up calling the cops: “It goes without saying that Darren’s eighth birthday was not the best.”
Does he mean well? Does he love his kids? Is he an epic screw-up? Is he apparently a pretty damn good songwriter? The answer to all of these questions is somehow “yes,” and this complexity of character is further developed by a second monologue, about bringing his kids to see a Taylor Swift show in Miami, followed by a truly moving cover of “Lover,” the title track off her latest album.
There is so much contrast to embrace. His obvious, if emotionally stunted, love for his daughter shines through even as he complains about the tickets costing 15 years worth of Amazon Prime and laments that he spent nearly a hundred bucks on drinks at the show. And he interprets Swift’s love song with emotional grace and power, just after getting the name of her album wrong.
It’s a wonderful exploration of the messy human experience and what it means to be a performing musician, putting yourself out there even if you don’t quite know your “self.”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 Weeks, 5 Shows
Feb. 7: Benefit for Erika Stahl of Muddy Ruckus, with The Mallett Brothers Band, Five of the Eyes, The Youngerbloods, Jenny Lou Drew, and Max García Conover. Erika needs a kidney, and the Portland music community is coming together to try to help her with extensive medical costs in the meantime. The good news is that you can help out while you’re having a pretty great time.
Feb. 7: Death Before Dishonor, Cruel Hand, On the Outside, Instigate, and Can’t Win at Geno’s. Throwback! This is a damn fine heavy show like an old grange hall DIY joint grew up and came of age. Bummer this is 21-plus, but you can tell your kids about it when they wake up at noon on Saturday.
Feb. 8: Micah Blue Smaldone, Clay Camero, Asa Irons at The Apohadion. Best we can tell, Micah hasn’t played out since that Waking Windows thingee in September, which makes this a pretty rare opportunity to catch his ethereal package of classical guitar and resonant vocals. We haven’t had new music from him since 2013 – maybe something’s in the works?
Feb. 14: Invoke at Maine Craft Distilling. It’s a bit pricey, but you get a kick-ass string quartet playing stuff outside your normal classical fare (one of them is a mando player), plus food and booze “pairings.” Could be a good date, right?
Feb. 15: Gunther Grown and Jenny Lou Drew at One Longfellow Square. What happens when a great alt-country band like Gunther Brown adds the frontman (Greg Klein) of another great alt-country band like Dark Hollow Bottling Company? Judging by the brand-new “Heartache and Roses,” Gunther’s third full-length release, some damn good things.
For fans of the Jayhawks, Uncle Tupelo, and the Old 97s, this band quite simply nails existential despair like no one else going in Portland right now. Greg Klein’s “The Crossing” opens with paired vocals in constant harmony like you dream about (and that have made Ghost of Paul Revere so attractive) and aching ennui: “And I dream sometimes about outer space / Alone in the stars.”
Pete Dubuc’s “Slow Me Down” has a lot of Mark Knopfler in it and features a lovely echoing “we’re here” that sorta makes you wish this six-piece had a woman in it to balance the backing vocals at least.
But “Garden” is maybe the most pointedly despairing: “I’m just another man who picked you up and let you down again.”
It’s been a while since alt-country ruled this town, but Gunther Brown have created a sound you can wrap yourself in to ward off the cold and help you truly wallow in the dark nights – and times – we inhabit.
— Sam Pfeifle