"You know I don't get by on a happy tune …" That's a line from "Borders," a song on Chris Bathgate's most recent CD, Salt Year. He could, and might well be, singing about himself and describing his songwriting. But there's no self-pitying putdown or disparagement in those words or in the moody melody that carries them. They're just a clear-eyed statement of some dark realities that might-or might not be- autobiographical. It matters not whether Bathgate crafted these songs out of the difficult stretch he has recently endured in his life, which he refers to in his bio, or whether he has imagined the people and experiences he sings about the way a novelist creates fictional characters and plot.
For these are marvelously well-constructed songs, sometimes out of the barest of lyric and melodic materials. "Poor Eliza" has only a three-note melody, and the main lyric is "it is what it is, what it is." Bathgate not only manages to get away with that, he actually gets somewhere. "Fur Curled on the Sad Road" goes it one better. Its vocal melody has only two notes, a half note apart, the smallest interval in Western music-and neither one is the tonic, to boot. Yet Bathgate manages to conjure something powerfully compelling and far-reaching from those meager materials. The last line of that song is, "These images they linger." Yes.
But Bathgate is no minimalist. The instrumental breaks on "Fur Curled on the Sad Road" and on all the songs are striking, moving, and memorable. His song lyrics are often complex, featuring subtle internal rhymes, slant rhymes, and intricate rhyme schemes. It's easy to miss that intricacy on a first or second hearing but impossible to fail to notice how your ear, mind, and body are drawn to and resonate with that coherence.
There are beautiful arrangement touches throughout the album, and Bathgate and his band manage to re-create most of them in their live shows-drum phrases bouncing from
left to right speaker (cleverly replicated on stage with extra tom-toms and an auxiliary drummer), guitar notes fading in, mimicking the sound of a pedal steel, gorgeous unison trumpet and trombone blends, with a violin delicately curling and twining around their full-bodied sound. Bathgate and his top-notch band, though not averse to occasional choreographed rock 'n' roll deep knee bends on stage, generate their excitement with the intensity with which they play this great material.
Bathgate's music is a testament to the spirit, as he sings repeatedly in the title tune, of "try again, try again." It's not so much music to accompany drowning your sorrows, as it is music that rises-and raises-from the depths, breaks the surface, and breathes and lives.
Chris Bathgate headlines a show at Woodruff's on Friday, November 4.
[Originally published in November, 2011.]