Saturday, February 16, 2013
Incorruptible Heart - Lavender Diamond
Lavender Diamond is one of my favorite live acts, I saw them three times last year as they previewed the songs on this, their second full length album. Their shows are always magical for me. Picture some dingy bar/club near their Echo Park/Silver Lake homebase. The room is full of hipsters, their faces illuminated by their smart phones as they blather away over the tunes spun by the DJ. Then the band appears, looking more like a jazz trio than an indie rock band. The giant piano player with a great shock of unruly gray hair, Steve Gregoropoulos, resembles a bouncer more than a musician, it is hard to believe those big hands can play with such grace and beauty. The guitarist Jeff Rosenberg is always the best dressed dude in the room. The diminutive drummer Ron Regé Jr. looks more like a comic book artist, which is exactly what he is when he's not pounding the skins. Then Becky Stark steps up to the mike wearing one of her vintage-style party dresses. She radiates innocence and sweetness. You would think some Sunday school teacher on a date has wandered into this den of iniquity by mistake. Over the din of hipster chatter she announces "We are Lavender Diamond" and then she gestures to the crowd and adds "and you are Lavender Diamond." I wince expecting the cool cats around me to devour her alive, but then the band lurches into a song and Stark cuts loose with that amazing voice of hers and the audience becomes silent, entranced by the stunning beauty of the music. I'm not a religious person, but seeing this band is like a spiritual experience for me, they renew my faith in the power of love which is Stark's primary message. This is evident in the title and many of the songs on the band's new album. The album opens with the electric piano intro that begins "Everybody's Heart's Breaking Now" and then Stark begins to croon about heartbreak and the end of the world. The song like most of the album features a lot of reverb and a dense musical backdrop with multi-tracked keyboards and strings. It is one of the loveliest songs on the album. "Dragonfly" introduces the synth pop sound that recurs throughout the album much to my surprise. I'm not sure I really approve but it does vary the texture of the music more than on their past records. Stark sings of the ups and downs of love and notes with typical positivity that despite everything "this life is all so sublime." The piano chords that introduce "I Don't Recall" remind me of Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" until the funky Prince-style guitar riff cuts in. It is a bit more uptempo and has a punchier rhythm track than most of the songs on the record which helps make it one of my favorites on the record. Stark sings of missing her love with a voice full of heartbreak like she is channeling the ghost of Patsy Cline. "Just Passing By" covers similar territory in a slow countryish tune with another aching vocal from Stark. She starts singing huskily in a lower register before hitting the high notes in the chorus. "Teach Me How To Waken" features more synth-pop but is otherwise an archetypal Lavender Diamond song as Stark announces that "love is the beginning and love is the end" which sums up her philosophy pretty well. The song features a very dramatic arrangement and a typically powerful vocal. In contrast to the wall of sound of the previous song, "Come Home" is more instrumentally spare, largely driven by acoustic guitar. The song is a plaintive plea for the subject of the song to return to Stark as she describes all the sacrifices she has made in order for that person to return. The nakedness of the song places the focus on Stark's vocal which is the way it should be. Side two opens with "Forgive" which sees a return of the dense musical sound of most of the record. The prominence of the drums in the mix gives the song extra oomph. It expresses a typically Starkian message to "lift the weight from your heart" and forgive others so that you can live in love. They up the beats per minute big time for the joyous "Light My Way" which is one of my favorite cuts on the record. It is synth pop you can dance to, a cross between Blondie and New Order. Naturally it is love that lights her way. I wish they would do more songs in this vein. "Oh My Beautiful World" is almost like a parody of a Lavender Diamond song as Stark gushes over and over how she loves her world. The song features a simple tune suggestive of an early 1960s girl group like the Shangri-Las except for the weird instrumental breaks where she wails over a distorted synthesizer solo that sounds like a different song entirely. In the jaunty "Perfect Love" Stark affirms her confidence that she will find her perfect love. She is joined in the vocals by the album's producer, Damian Kulash Jr. of OK Go and I enjoy their chemistry. If you listen closely you can hear Stark tap dancing. The album's eclecticism continues with the love song "Everybody's Song" which is a mix of country and dixieland in the form of a slow waltz guaranteed to have you swaying as you listen to it. The album concludes with "All The Stars" which I think is the most extraordinary song the band has ever done. This majestic tune bolstered by soaring strings and gorgeous piano playing from Gregoropoulos provides the platform for an operatic flight from Stark that is mesmerizing. When the band does the song live, the audience is stunned by its power, you can see their eyes bugging out and their jaws dropping. I always get chills from it. In contrast to the sunny sentiments expressed by most of the album, the poetic lyrics express an almost existential outlook on the world as Stark examines our place in the universe. It is a great song, a testament to the potential power of pop music when it is played with intelligence and skill. The wall of sound in this song almost convinces me that the band made the right decision to take this heavily produced approach on this record. However having heard a lot of these songs live without all the fussiness on the record, I still have my doubts. Stark's voice is so magnificent that she doesn't need all this support. She provides the power. I appreciate the experiment but I hope they don't repeat it. Anyway with songs this good and a singer like Stark, not even Phil Spector could wreck this music. I recommend it unconditionally to anyone looking to light their way through life.