By Eleni P. Austin
“These days I’m racking up casualties like I’m trying to get caught, spend all my time making enemies of the only friends I got, trying to stay out of trouble, but Lord, there’s trouble on my mind, can’t think about the future when you want to leave it all behind.” That’s Bird Streets, taking a personal inventory on “Disappearing Act,” a track off the new album, Lagoon.
Bird Streets is an exclusive enclave perched above the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It’s also the nom de Rock of singer-songwriter John Brodeur.
Born and raised in New York, John spent most of his childhood indoors, battling a serious illness. Deprived of the companionship of his contemporaries, he became intimately acquainted with his parents’ record collection. His earliest friends included The Fab Four, Crosby, Stills, Nash and occasionally Young, as well as ‘70s hit-makers that ran the gamut from Bread and Chicago, to Led Zeppelin and Seals & Crofts. He decided early on that he was destined for a career in music. John began playing guitar, and as the years progressed, he amassed an eclectic album collection, soaking up myriad musical styles. The Xanadu soundtrack became an obsession, along with the caustic wit of Elvis Costello, the New Romantic New Wave of Duran Duran and the brainy Pop of They Might Be Giants. The Beastie Boys’ sharp synthesis of Rap and Rock loomed large and by the ‘90s, The Black Crowes and Jellyfish were his go-to records to jam along with. Nirvana arrived just ahead of his 16th birthday, and it felt like an epiphany. It was that album that inspired him to form his own Grunge-y three-piece, Norman. Their local success gave him the courage to front a couple more bands, and by the end of the 20th century, he struck out on his own. His solo debut, Tiger Pop was released in 2000. Over the next 13 years he recorded an EP and two more long-players that drew favorable comparisons to artists like Beck, Robyn Hitchcock and Elliott Smith. It was during this era that he first became acquainted with Jason Faulkner. Something of a polymath, the musician/producer had cut his teeth in celebrated bands like The Three O’ Clock and Jellyfish. He’d also jump-started his own solo career, and still found time to work with everyone from Air, to Susannah Hoffs, Alain Johannes, Aimee Mann and Paul McCartney. The pair began collaborating in earnest in 2014, their musical chemistry was immediate. Ping-ponging between the East and West Coast, the lifelong New Yorker shed some of his de rigueur Golden State animus and began to explore L.A.’s smoggy sprawl. Soon enough, he discovered the city’s hidden charms, including the Bird Streets ‘hood, which reminded him of Albany, New York, where he’d spent most of his ‘20s. Released in late 2018, Bird Streets’ eponymous debut was met with rave reviews and respectable sales. John’s marriage ended just as the album was taking flight. Out on the road he had a lot to think about, and the music flowed. In the midst of assembling songs for Bird Streets’ follow-up, the pandemic hit like creative coitus-interruptus. With Jason otherwise occupied with prior commitments, he wound up making the record in four different studios, Nashville, Brooklyn, L.A. and Memphis, working with well-known producers like Wilco’s Pat Sansone, Michael Lockwood and the team of Zach Jones and Oscar Albis Rodriguez. The result is a crackling 12-song set entitled Lagoon.
The album opens with the clang-y confessional of “Sleeper Agent.” Player-piano chords surround this intimate admission; “I gotta tell you, I’m kind of a mess, live through the day just to get through the next, can’t return a call, never mind a text, the monster inside, it don’t get a rest.” Consumed with self-doubt he finally asks, “is there another word for total paralysis?” Initially, his tentative vocals are augmented by a swooping, shivery string section plus some woozy Wurlitzer. The arrangement turns a corner by the first chorus, as vinegary guitars, pliant bass and a cantilevered beat are salted in the mix. The cyclonic instrumentation matches lyrics that drop in to see what condition his condition is in, The psychic scars run deep; “At war with my mind and I keep losing ground, a congress of cowards ruling over my id, and the monster inside me is just a scared little kid hiding under the steps trying not to get hit, it’s getting so hard to forgive and forget when he knows what he did.” Each stunning revelation is accompanied stinging guitar riffs, caught in the echo and sway.
A couple of the songs, “SF 1993” and “Machine” were recorded at Memphis’ venerable Ardent Studios. The iconic facility was the original home of Power Pop titans Big Star, and throughout the years, everyone from Isaac Hayes, Sam & Dave, Staple Singers and Led Zeppelin, R.E.M. Bob Dylan, Allman Brothers, ZZ Top, Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Raconteurs have recorded classic albums there.
The former, which starts out hushed and conversational, shares some musical DNA with Roberta Flack’s iconic version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” Courtly acoustic guitar washes over twinkling percussion, as lyrics sketch out a one-sided phone conversation between estranged lovers; “Hey, it’s me, waiting just outside, patiently, will you be much longer, and where’s the key? I left it underneath the mat before I left for San Francisco 1993, the time I swore I’d never leave/It’s been a minute since the days of making love all afternoon, and I’m still making it up as I go along, maybe a few more days would do us good, but I’m afraid to say that’s all we’ve got.” The full band kicks in on the chorus, layering in searing electric guitars, fluid bass lines, melancholy Mellotron and a snapback beat. Gossamer guitars and painterly piano crowd the break. Meanwhile, the final verse is tinged with contrition and regret; “Listen, I know at the end I was unbelievably unkind, shocked you even took my call/Not a day goes by I don’t regret the last words we exchanged: ‘don’t you even care about me? Not at all’.”
The latter is an anthemic and muscular rocker powered slashing guitars, plinky keys, spectral bass lines and a thunderous beat. The lyrics find our hero haunted by visions of a former love; “Even though you’re gone, I feel you everywhere, this is not a victory, more like an everlasting sigh…” He wrestles with old ghosts; “I saw you in the old café, talking with a friend, sipping your Earl Grey, tried to catch you but you slipped away, was it all a dream, just an aberration, I’ve fallen too deep in my imagination,” the arrangement accelerates on the bridge, shifting from supernatural to supersonic. A phantasmic solo is unleashed on the break, nearly eclipsing the song’s eerie angst.
On Bird Streets debut, the songs were crisp and concise, cosmic, yet calibrated. On this record, John adds a few more aural colors to his musical palette. Take “The Document,” a Chamber Pop heartbreaker that is anchored by winsome acoustic notes, warm mellotron, sylvan strings, ambrosial woodwinds, barely-there bass and a shuffle rhythm. Another one-sided phone conversation, he tries to parse the quixotic changes that accompany a break-up. Assigning blame is the lyrical leitmotif, but the results remain the same; “Said I can’t balance you and the little things you need with these great dreams of mine/But even if that’s true, we let our heads get in the way, taking two things at a time, forever was shorter than I thought it would be, maybe dreams only come true in dreams.” A lowing clarinet intertwines with wistful bass flute on the break. Ultimately, he shoulders all responsibility; “Bold enough to break your heart, you knew it from the very start, I broke my home and here’s the document.”
That measure of remorse spills over into the next track, aptly entitled “Let You Down.” The sunny melody is matched by brisk guitars, evanescent Mellotron, wall-to-wall synths: ARP Odyssey, Juno-6, Moog and Mini-Moog, plaintive piano, angular bass lines and a kick-drum beat. Initially, this tone-deaf attempt at rapprochement fails miserably; “You just wanted me to say I’m sorry, okay, I’m sorry, can we get back together now? I’m spent, it’s like running in wet cement, and the messages I sent were refused, Baby, I’m confused.” While the lyrics leap headlong down a rabbit-hole of equivocation, the arrangement shifts from cheerful ‘70s AM Pop into hazy Prog-Rock territory on the break and extended outro by latticing slide guitar over whizzy keys and sparkly piano.
Then there’s modal embroidery of “Leave No Trace.” Gauzy sitar, droning tanpura, sun-dappled guitar, phased keys, thrumming bass and a trap-kit beat weave an exotic aural tapestry. Lyrics like “Maybe today I won’t fuck up everything, in an alternate reality I cast no ripples in the sea, no one ever saw my face, get out quiet, leave no trace,” allude to the protagonist in Jonathan Ames 2013 novella You Were Never Really Here.
As the kids say, this album is all killer, no filler. But four tracks stand out from the pack, beginning with the aforementioned “Disappearing Act.” Echoing the West Coast Jazz pioneered by Jerry Mulligan and Chet Baker, tenor sax and trumpet offer an opening fanfare before ceding the spotlight to chunky power chords, tender keys, wily bass and a propulsive beat. Although John’s been clean and sober for more than a decade, the lyrics catalogue former foibles and failures ; “Drink myself nonverbal and pass out in the hall, go home with anyone still standing at last call, No matter how much time has passed, I never know how long it’s gonna last/I’m neither the man I wanted to be, nor the man I thought I was, just a couple of drinks away from anonymous.” Traversing the same landscape as Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues,” the penitent lyrics conclude that life is easier when properly anesthetized. But the mood lifts briefly on the break as Hammond C3 colors encircle peppery horns and waspish guitars and a spelunking beat. “Ambulance” signals another sonic shift, achieving some Latin heft thanks to chunky percussion, rippling keys, staticky handclaps, tensile bass and stripped-down guitar riffs. Life has become “a tinder box to a flame.” Fuzzy guitars bookend the chorus as the lyrics chronicle more dipsomaniacal misadventures and close calls; “Can you remember all the times you should have died, you’re caught in a tug of war and playing both sides, Jesus ain’t the answer and the bottle left you dry, all the men you couldn’t be are dropping like flies before your bloodshot eyes.” The infectious instrumentation on the break almost belies the lyrical self-flagellation. As the arrangement builds to a squally crescendo John repeats the album’s mantra; “This is not a victory.”
Remember that early ‘80s Reggae song by The Toyes, “Smoke Two Joints?” Well, “Burnout” is it’s clinically depressed cosmic cousin. Over slinky guitars, rubbery bass, icy keys and percolating beat, stacked vocals unspool a litany of rationales for counting on chemical cuisine; “I get high and I feel sad, I get high to cope, I get high and forget about the song that I just wrote/I get high and say goodbye to all my cares in the world, I get high and get passed by, by all the pretty girls.” Blurred guitars collide with some pointillist piano in between verses as before there’s an epiphany of sorts; “I get high, and wonder why nothing gets me high.”
Finally, “On Fire” seems to chronicle a brief, carnal conflagration that left its mark. Braided acoustic notes partner with swelling strings that flutter and wow. Elliptical lyrics tell a truncated tale of passionate encounter; “It only lasted days…and when we parted ways we were on fire, I looked into your eyes and saw a wayward soul I recognized, and when we harmonized we were on fire.”
The record closes with the bubblegum crunch of “Go Free” This sunny kiss-off is John at his Power-Pop-iest. The song is fueled by the jingly-jangly-est guitars, vroomy bass lines and a rattle-trap beat. The end of his marriage closes a chapter; “Maybe you’re the anchor that kept me from drifting out to sea, but I may be the anchor that’s kept you from being what you’re meant to be/With that in mind, I’m pulling up the line, I wish you all good things in life, cause you’re a queen, Baby, go free.” His honeyed falsetto aches with sincerity on this most cheerful post-mortem. On the break, crisp, ringing guitars coalesce, echoing antecedents like The Beatles, Byrds, Big Star, Replacements and Todd Rundgren. Funny, how a cluster of chords can conjure up such a surfeit of memory and mixed emotions. John played Mellotron, electric and acoustic guitars, he also relied on a crack cadre of players to bring his songs to life. They include Blair Sinta, John Sands and Jon Radford on drums and percussion, Jim Hoke on pedal steel, bass flute and clarinet, John Davis on acoustic and electric guitar, sitar and tanpura, Todd Caldwell on Hammond C3, Steve Salcedo on tenor and baritone saxophones and Matt Owens on trumpet. There were also superstar assists from Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, acclaimed singer-songwriters Aimee Mann and Ed Harcourt on bass and keys, respectively and Patrick Warren on piano, strings and Wurlitzer. Producers Pat Sansone, Michael Lockwood and Zach Jones and Oscar Albris handled everything else.
Although Lagoon is suffused with longing, sorrow and regret, those emotions are cloaked in a kaleidoscope of sounds. Reflective and erudite lyrics are matched by buoyant melodies and lush instrumentation. Deftly sideswiping the sophomore slump, Bird Streets has released one of this year’s best albums.