By Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio
The Squires of the Subterrain | Radio Silence
(Rocket Racket, 2019)
In the achy, far-from-silent world that the characters of Christopher Earl’s new songs inhabit, ghosts, or feelings that go bump in the night, are afoot, the past is a bubbling mess ripe for healing, and actions have their consequences.
Channeling Tom Waits and Randy Newman’s somewhat-skewed New Orleans-flavored optimism, Earl tells some tales about people who may or may not ever emerge from their nightmarish stupor and, you know, be able to get a Slurpee at 7-Eleven without looking over their shoulders for that which is forever haunting them.
Radio Silence will come as a surprise to listeners who were expecting from this album some kind of rock and pop and roll exposition. Even within Earl’s considerable catalog, this album is something else entirely–an aberration of sorts, but still quirky, if a bit off-balance.
This is an album settled comfortably (or uncomfortably, as the case may be) in the waking netherworld of men and women haunted by their day-to-day uneasiness. That it is also tremendously entertaining and a thinking-person’s collection of wildly creative songwriting makes it a living, breathing object of your affection.
These songs, jazzy, bluesy, and loose-limbed-like-skeletons, function as a lo-fi song cycle masquerading as a waking nightmare. The characters on display have their work cut out for them, being haunted by the ghosts of feelings past that live inside and surround them. Telling these tales with saxes and trumpet, ukulele, piano, drums, guitar, banjo and vibraphone, Earl lets the narrative chips fall where they may as these compositions unravel.
A pair of songs about ghostly feelings rolls out after the moody title track. “House of Ghosts” is a New Orleans jazz stomper with blaring, loosey-goosey flurryed horns that almost celebrates a life surrounded by the ghostly remnants that haunt it. “Another Ghost (In the House),” a slow, moody, jazz grind punctuated by plinking piano and bluesy guitar lines, ponders the state of a home living with its secrets.
In the determined dance of “Whiskey Closet,” which sounds not unlike a hora, the narrator sings of the place underneath the stairs where you go to toss your cares away. In “Tequila and Gin,” a jazzy shuffle that finds Earl sliding brushes atop his snare drum, liquor is thicker and whatever you’re pouring is the cat’s meow.
The subject of the Steely Dan-ish slow, bluesy roll, “Fever Eyes,” holds sway as those in his gaze fold like cheap clothing. In prime Tom Waits territory, Earl sings about the “8th Wonder of the World,” a slow burner of a tune about a temptress with powers far beyond those of mortal women (“She’s a genius of deception and disguise/She’ll pull the wool right over your eyes”). The track rides atop thumping bass hits, bluesy piano and Earl’s emotive vocal.
The idea of ghostly feelings shadowing our waking souls is prevalent throughout this album. Earl finishes with a short, closing rumination, “Shadow,” in which piano, banjo and the artist’s lively vocal tell the tale. And the tale? Shadows follow and keep following, but what those shadows tell us is up for debate.
What isn’t up for debate is the weight of The Squires of the Subterrain’s Radio Silence. For Squires of the Subterrain fans, and fans of eclectic, left-field turns that think outside of the box, this collection, “recorded in the basement on analog gear” according to the artist, dazzles. It is quite an achievement in a long career that is defined by them.
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