Chris Bathgate 2009
Serious and mysterious
"I blame Bob Dylan for records like this." That's what my friend, Steve, said to me as we listened to Chris Bathgate's A Cork Tale Wake, released last year. Steve was referring to the inscrutable lyrics on top of pained melodies. And, alas, I had to agree. Bathgate is a talented folk song writer, and his liquid, unstylized voice is soothing. But if he is as overwrought on the inside as he expresses in his music, I feel sorry for the guy.
Not that Bathgate isn't generating buzz. A new EP, Wait, Skeleton, was released last year as a digital download card at 7,000 Starbucks-the first artist from a small label (Michigan's Quite Scientific Records) to land a spot in this promotion. His song "Serpentine" was chosen as "Song of the Day" by NPR Music in January 2008. He was selected "Best Solo Artist in Michigan" in 2006 by Real Detroit Weekly. And his young fans, in vintage cotton dresses, sing along with all the words at his acoustic performances.
But do they know what he's singing about? Bathgate likes the sounds of words and cooks up poetic lines like "for every gray and sad hemmed heart to coil" and "the frost leaves sounded like glass" and "I held you there in the rose tint click when the street lights dim." Beyond these compelling images, though, he's not much inclined to clue the listener in to his meaning. Only one song, "Do What's Easy," offers an accessible story-that of the wasted, angry life of an alcoholic. That kind of clarity makes me guess he has a lot of wisdom to share.
Of course, the twenty-five-year-old is still developing. A Cork Tale Wake is more coherent, less chaotic, and better produced than his previous, self-released CD, Throatsleep. And the way he incorporates piano, cello, violin, and trumpet makes more sense on the latter record. His lovely, heart-wrenching melodies and melancholic vocals are more prominent in the mix, and he lays
off the distorted sound effects enough to let the songs breathe.
But he could loosen up a lot more without losing his angst and artistry. He could take better advantage of a driving beat, as he does in the memorable "Restless." He might try just a guitar, bass, and drum lineup. Or he could head more in the direction of a traditional medieval minstrel and storyteller.
Maybe I'm just getting too old to take myself so seriously. When Chris Bathgate gets to that age, he could probably bring me to my knees.
Chris Bathgate is the headliner at the Elbow Room on Friday, April 17.
[Originally published in April, 2009.]