“Maybe home is nothing more than where you hang your hat,” Bill DeMain sings in the cautiously cheery “Looking for a Place to Live,” the first of six sweetly-realized songs on his brilliant 2014 EP, Extended Stay. Autobiographical in nature and a hopeful prayer in practice, it’s about the search for a place to call home.
After a flood and a subsequent fire that destroyed his belongings and his home, and an extended period of living a temporary existence while his condo was being rebuilt, DeMain set about writing some songs. Out of the 18 he wound up recording, he chose a half-dozen to release–songs that share the same delicate approach to songcraft that has marked his work with Swan Dive, and his writing for and with other artists such as Marshall Crenshaw and Kim Richey. These songs also share a series of commonalities, such as looking for purpose, for love, and for sincerity, even while not having all of the answers.
These character- and situation-based songs live in a storied world shaped and charmed by the sounds of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, Paul Simon and Van Dyke Parks. But they do more than merely pay homage; they color outside of the lines and fashion their own heartbeats. Working economically, DeMain’s pen sketches out the necessary detail and leaves the listener to connect the dots.
DeMain’s deft wordplay works in tandem with his gorgeous melodies and clever musical constructs to deliver meaningful sketches that speak to listeners who may (or may not) share similar experience. “Looking for a Place to Live,” painting with a soft, acoustic brush in the manner of the sound of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends album, expresses the trauma and sadness that accompany finding a place to live. “Lost the roof above my head,” DeMain sings, “and all the stars were laughing/Turned around and watched our bed/Float away downstream/But it was just a dream…” Perhaps home is a state of mind that four walls can never really define.
The tender, piano-based and Nilsson-esque “In Your Letter” examines the art of communication and getting a meaning across by way of old-fashioned pluck. “Everything is lower case and cute in your letter,” DeMain sings. The letter is a litany of events, of experiences, put down on paper with a pen and determined expression. But what do the words, all told, mean? “Now I guess I’ll read between the lines in your letter, in your letter/What is it I’m hoping that I’ll find in your letter, in your letter…”
The sleepy wisdom of “Common Love Song” allows that words may give away too much or be unable to give away enough. Sometimes, finding the right words is a fool’s errand. “But all I have to give to you is/A common phrase that’s only used/And I guess for now that that will have to be enough.” The subject of the astounding “Raggedy Man” is a regular guy without much means who can provide an alternate pot of gold: “But if you want an ear to chew the fat/A hand with folding laundry at the laundromat/The occasional rabbit pulled from a hat/I’ll give you that in seconds flat.”
Helping Bill to realize his vision for these songs are a couple of familiar names: his Swan Dive singing partner, Molly Felder, who provides backing vocals and hand claps; songwriter and producer Brad Jones, who mixed this record; singer-songwriter David Mead; and Pat Buchanan, who co-wrote with DeMain most of the songs on Buchanan’s 1999 record with his band, Idle Jets.
As perfect a creation as any collection of songs bidding for your precious time, Extended Stay leaves only one question unanswered: When will we hear the rest of the songs in the well?