Whatever else, you have to admire Aaron Rester’s style and imagination. His previous offering, ‘Americayana’, was reviewed in AUK in 2017 and praised for its originality in mixing country music and Hindu mythology in a concept album. ‘Only the Stars’, the current album shows the same imagination in offering a concept album examining events of the second decade of the American 20th Century – a decade sometimes overlooked but full of the vim and vigour of American life and politics.
If you are that way inclined it will send you toward Wikipedia and Google, just to fill in the detail of a collection of songs that generally eschew the lyrical predictability of some Americana. There are lively and interesting stories being told here.
This is a musically sparse album with a range of acoustic accompaniments by Rester and colleague Sarah Blick on violin. This is very much in contrast with ‘Americayana’ that is both electric and eclectic in its musical approach. Supplying the vocals in this instance is Gabrielle Schafer.
The opening track, ‘Mamah’ considers the death of Frank Lloyd Wright’s lover Mamah Borthwick, one of 7 people murdered by a deranged servant at the home Borthwick and Lloyd Wright shared. Theirs was considered a scandalous affair at the time but Rester treats her demise with dignity, from the viewpoint of her lover who muses on, ‘Their slings and arrows, their jealous words’.
It was interesting to compare this with the opening lines of Conor Oberst’s contentious take on the same subject, ‘Just because you got it / you don’t have to flaunt it / with an endless stream of famous men’.
Second track ,‘Man from San Francisco’, echoes a short story by Ivan Bunin about a rich American who dies suddenly while on a lavish tour of the world. It questions the selfish life and moneyed indulgence of a man who in death seems to become just another piece of cargo, having when alive been pampered to the hilt. Rester’s tale has our hero disappearing overboard during a storm in the Sea of Japan. ‘And that casket – oh, that casket – slipped into the deep’. The grave is an anonymous refuge for rich and poor alike!
‘Up From the South’ references the Chicago race riots during which the resident Irish population famously victimised the newly arrived black migrant workers who seem fated to, ‘Find the trouble you ain’t looking for’. Despite initial suggestions that many black victims had deliberately beaten themselves to death some order was belatedly restored and attempts made to ascertain the truth of the matter – that the black population had been deliberately targeted and initially poorly protected by the forces of ‘law and order’. Unfortunately for the provocateurs many of the black population recently returned from the war expected more and were determined to fight back. An infamous rioter was said to be one Richard Daley – eventually to be mayor of Chicago and destined to prove that old habits die hard.
And so the album progresses though events of the time – a famous Circus train crash; the flooding of Brown Station in the Catskill Mountains to provide the biggest dam of its time and fresh water for New Yorkers. We have the story of Billy Sunday a famous baseball player turned prohibitionist. Finally, the album plays out with a hit of the day ‘After You’ve Gone’
So far, so very interesting and entertaining. Unfortunately, the album falls down slightly on the musical side. Gabrielle Schafer has a fine voice and sings well throughout, but despite the odd moment the musical accompaniment seems to hit a certain groove – strummed guitar – and remain there for almost the length of the album. I am a fan of sparse music which is sometimes a harder act than musical sophistry and overkill – just in this case some variety would have been preferable. ‘Americayana’ proves that Rester is capable, but he chose another route for this offering.
Nonetheless, this is a fine album with lyrics to pique your interest and imagination from an artist with more to say than, ‘She loves me / she loves me not’.
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