Jonathan Byerley – Catherine MarketPosted by Richard Potsubay
These days, the cliche-ridden and overproduced musings of sensitive male/female troubadours can be heard everywhere from outdoor malls to SUV commercials. For many, it’s not without good reason that the words “singer-songwriter” have become the two dirtiest words in contemporary music. This once earnest and promising genre peaked in the early ’70s but quickly became an overcrowded ghetto overrun with lackluster imagination and mediocre talent, and it has largely since stayed that way. But every so often there comes a reminder that wonderful things can still happen when someone with personality and talent straps on a guitar and gets in front of a microphone. Jonathan Byerley is one such individual.
Based in Brooklyn, Byerley already has a solo album under his belt, 2006′s Hymns and Fragments. More recently, he has served as frontman for garage folk rock act Plates of Cake. The band’s 2010 self-titled LP showcased the work of a jangly and mildly psychedelic bar band, with Byerley’s voice and material taking center stage. Recorded in his native Denver, his latest album, Catherine Market, on its surface sounds much like the supposed “group effort” that is its predecessor, but a closer listen reveals Byerley’s authorial stamp dominating the proceedings even more than before. Despite the invaluable contribution of the other session players, this is is Byerley’s baby, so billing it as a solo album seems more than appropriate.
Byerley’s physical resemblance to a young, bearded Martin Scorsese belies the tonality of his voice, a sonorous baritone recalling the gravelly croon briefly adopted by Dylan on his 1969 Nashville Skyline album. It can also occasionally sound like other iconic lower registers from that same era: Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, and Skip Spence (to name a few). It’s a voice of limited range, but it’s surprisingly elastic and–ultimately—very unique. It wraps itself around phrasings that are strange and unexpected and perfectly compliments Byerley’s songwriting, which traffics in imagery just this side of the abstract. The distinctiveness of Byerley’s sound and vision is what sets him apart from from the scores of revivalist hacks and imitators.
His inimitable musical persona is established from the opening chords of the album’s first song, “Swallowed Diamonds”, but it is particularly acute in the song that follows it, “Not in a Bad Way”. Defiantly quirky and sometimes maddeningly cryptic, the song’s lyrics serve as Byerley’s aesthetic manifesto: “People say some pretty strange things about me”, he sings. “They seem to think I’ve got some pretty strange things inside me/that’s a tiny bit off/I can’t say what I’ve got/my head’s not full of fraught”. While he may be rambling down a well-worn path, he is doing so in a way others have not. It’s a journey full of sudden twists and turns, and one which provides Byereley with the source for a his unusual musical yarns.
“Dancing for Eeels” is one such tale. It’s the first of several songs where the enigmatic Catherine of the album’s title makes an appearance. Thematically, it adheres to the “widening gap between two lovers in a failing failing relationship” model, but here its presented like a scene in a Fellini film. The story begins when the couple gets in the car to embark on a road trip to see “the wooden ships”. Catherine won’t put on her seatbelt, and it’s all downhill from there. Set against a bouncy waltz with some celtic flavorings, the events of the tale are hazy, and it’s difficult to distinguish the fantastical from the real; it’s as if they take place in that mental state between wakefulness and sleep, the zone in which Byerley seems to be most comfortable. “In the Diner” explores similar surrealistic territory, but through a spooky underworld laden with aquatic imagery: “Over me, your mother laid an egg from which you hatched/and it’s insane, how work can make man turn into a fish/ over me, your father who conceived you was a swan/and don’t forget, your lover died with water in his lungs”. Different? Yes. Puzzling? Most definitely. Evocative and wildly authentic? You bet.
As singular as Byerley’s vision is, it would not have the dramatic impact that it does here were it not for the music. Many of the great singer-songwriter LPs earned their mantle because of the outstanding studio production and the contribution of their backing musicians, and Catherine Market is no exception. It’s unclear how many members of Plates of Cake sat in here, but it’s a safe bet that it was quite a few of them. Whoever they are, all the session musicians here are to be lauded. Recalling the work of Area Code 615 (the session musicians on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde), their playing is accomplished without being flashy, vintage-sounding without sounding old. The arrangements are rich and imaginative, ensuring that there’s no sameness to any of the songs, and the instrumentation garnishing the record’s guitar-bass-drum foundation, ranging from harmonium to mariachi brass, adds texture and color to Byerley’s painterly sonic canvas. The crystalline production sounds appropriately analogue and provides the perfect space for Byerley to chase his mercurial muse.
Up until now both Byerley’s group and solo efforts have been well-kept secrets, but the release of this LP (also available on cassette) might change that. Regardless of the inevitable critical accolades and potentially lucrative sales receipts, Catherine Market builds upon a body of work that is exquisitely crafted and refreshingly original.