Child Ballads

Child Ballads

Child Ballads

Cheekbone Hollows (Pop. 1/2 Life)

Gypsy Eyes Records

I am usually loathe to steal another hack’s/writer’s riff, but when someone (somewhere) put it out there that Stewart Lupton was up there with Chet Baker in the “Ravaged Male Beauty” stakes, well, you know, I couldn’t let that one pass by. Mostly because I like to shoehorn Chet Baker in everywhere, but also because I think the comparison is pretty much off. Lupton may have had his lost years, but he’s nowhere near as hellbent for oblivion as Baker, and though they both have strangely beautiful voices (compare Baker on “You Don’t Know What Love Is” to Lupton’s gnarled yelp and purr on “Cheekbone Hollows”), Lupton’s also a whole lot smarter than poor Chet and will probably make it out of this whole thing alive, if not wealthy. Maybe you haven’t met yet. Stewart Lupton was formerly the frontman for New York’s bright young thing, Jonathan Fire*Eater, who could have had the world, had Lupton decided not to leave it all behind for, first, some lost years, and then, academia, to study writing. He is primarily a writer, and even a cursory listen to this album reveals an absolute joy in the myriad ways words can be combined and then performed. A love of Royal Trux and a determination to do it again, right, brings Lupton back to us, helming Child Ballads, a more spontaneous, messy, and joyous affair. Finally.

One of the infinite things I love about the songs as performed on Cheekbone Hollows is the lazy, hazy interplay of vocals — Lupton doubletracked or tripletracked, Lupton playfully duetting with Betsy Wright, all scratchy-voiced and alternately bratty and heartfelt, weaving stories, friendly recognition, easy camaraderie — they mimic the rhythms of conversation, talking/singing all over one another, falling in and out of sync, trampling over one another’s best punchlines, rising and falling. Remember how Neil and Jennifer did it so casually on “Lightning Boxer” and made it seem like playing music was every bit as natural as reminiscing with your good friends on a twilight summer night? See, that’s how it should be! (Sidenote: I really do hope this dynamic is in some small way maintained or adapted, even though the band has undergone a complete lineup change since recording the album, with only the steely-eyed Lupton remaining.)

“Cheekbone Hollows” begins the album so fucking assuredly, but simultaneously not giving a fuck (hey, what?), like the kid who’s too smart for his own good, smart enough to realize that all the benchmarks of success are fucking meaningless, and who’s going to get totally blasted but have a great fucking time in the process. And what does that sound like? Clattering drums, maracas that add this much more attitude, lackadaisical acoustic guitars, electric synth making all manner of alien buzzing (replacing the superior electric piano on the demo version that made the web rounds a year or so ago), and bluesy, completely lost and wandering lead guitar that leaves little exclamation points over a mess of vocalists that all have the cleverest lines in the room — seeing Rosicrusians on the bus, finding your dancing shoes draped over a telephone wire, and knowing full well that there’s nothing as bad as the “shadow that’s caught in the hollow of a cheekbone.” Wonderful, casual.

“Old Man October” starts off with these haphazardly amplified “ooh oohs” that remind me, for all the world, of some song on Grease, before bursting into Technicolor, stutterstep, dirty, lo-fi rock/blues — angels with dirty faces, T-Rex-unplugged glam swagger, a magnificent turn of the shoulder and jut of the hips, lips pouting and forming over wickedly clever call-and-response choruses and long, unraveling verses that, as the song continues, stack up and build and layer (“On the carpet with my pants off/ Making collages/ Making good use of my time”) like Jenga.

“Laughter From The Rafters” at first makes off with the opiated, yet still fucking optimistic strumming of a “Sweet Jane,” but there the NY-cool similarities end, as the track shapes into a ramshackle tumble with both Lupton and Wright growling in their best Jennifer Herrema impression, vocals buried and distorted, sometimes singing two different songs until they join together to spit out these beautiful, surreal images (at one point, I shit you not, it sounds like there are five different voices all saying different things, but still in sync). The music is a messy, dazed countrified mess of joyous ‘n’ sassy guitar, meandering, tingling lead guitar work shimmying its own little rhythms, and shuffling percussion. Perfect!

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