In his new release, issued days before embarking on one of the most ambitious tours of his career, Jeff Beam has found a new band. His EP drops four songs, including the near-perfect '70s rambler "Something Came From Nothing," a single that sounds like a modernized lunar lounge-rock version of Todd Rundgren, along with intimate, simpler versions of earlier tracks. It's a modest release, but its impact is significant.
The Portland songwriter has brought aboard multi-instrumentalist Kate Beever to play vibraphones and keys; McKay Belk (If and It) on slide guitar; and Elliot Heeschen (Builder of the House) on drums, while returning Sam Peisner on bass and Scott Nebel on guitars. This additional instrumentation seems like a turning point — the fit feels so natural it’s almost something to celebrate. In particular, Beever's vibes and Belk's slide guitar totally show up. Their work stretches the song out, which helps to shift the focus of Beam's guitar away from some of the more astral projections of his back catalogue into tight and tidy arrangements, allowing for better conversations with his vocals, which are some of the best in any Beam song to date.
A squall after the first chorus of “Clairvoyance” does little to disguise a paranoid android-influence, as a cavernous-sounding whoooo brings faint Radiohead heat to simmer the familiar touchstones in American rock. Though the guitars can recall Jonny Greenwood's in tone, stylistically, Beam plays like an American player. That’s a gut feeling and I don’t know how to back it up, but that tension feels like a huge part of the appeal. His songs seem to balance on the axis between a type of music that is on the one hand deeply interior, existential and self obsessed, and a kind of music that’s about freedom, community, and inclusiveness — the type of music you used to hear on the street. It’s like 50 years after Steve Miller wrote “Space Cowboy," Beam's finding ways to define the term. First listens seem weird and psyched out, but further ones reveal harmonies and arrangements that seem now right out the American dad vaults, from Miller and Petty to The Moody Blues, or Crosby, Stills and Nash, and later like noise compositions you’d find only at basement shows.
A more intimate version of "Cherryfield," a nine-minute standout from 2015's Is Believed to Have Been (where alternate versions of "Wholed and "Clairvoyance" live) finds the artist steeped in his whatness, anchoring the song with a cool vocal refrain four minutes in barely adorned with accompanying instruments. Listening now, its contrast to the clamor of the prior version is both stark and significant, both for the artist's growth and the absence of the great Portland artist Tanner Olin Smith, who played sitar on the original and collaborated with Beam on many earlier tracks (Smith died unexpectedly last month).
There's only one true new song here, but it's indicative enough of a chapter-break to take note. While always mostly accessible, there's something that has seemed to be shrouded in a lot of the songs of Beam's back catalog. That veil seems lifted. What has sounded in the past like a sort of fealty to his guitar, an instrument over which he has considerable command, is waning. I don't want to read too much into this; I'm not saying this guy's done with weird noise. But if this release is any indication, the space that's opened up could be enough for the dude's voice, and its many complex personalities, to shine through. He's got a new band, but he might have a new instrument too.
Jeff Beam | Something Came From Nothing EP release | with Theodore Treehouse + Fort Gorgeous | Portland House of Music, 25 Temple St., Portland | $7-10 | www.portlandhouseofmusic.com
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