By Tris McCall
From: Manhattan, via Larchmont, New York. Larchmont is an extremely distinctive suburb, and not just because of its long tradition of talented native sons. Still, Milton’s perspective is likely to resonate with anybody who’s left an automobile suburb to grab for the brass ring in the big city.
Format: Full-length album. Twelve of these songs are new, and Milton appends a live version of “In The City,” his best-known song (so far). If you don’t know “In The City” already, it’ll just sound like a killer closer.
Fidelity: Actually, “In The City” isn’t the only live recording on Milton; “Williamsburg Lullaby,” the sixth track, was cut a week earlier on the same stage, during a month-long residency at the new Living Room on Ludlow Street. If you come to Milton armed with that knowledge, you’ll probably be able to tell that the recording conditions on those two tracks were slightly different than the other 11 – the guitar is a little louder, and the vocals are a bit more muffled. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t bother to read liner notes, you might not even notice. On just about every song, the engineers who’ve worked on Milton have put you right there in the club with the singer and his band.
Genre: Like Laura Cantrell, Milton is the sort of indie singer-songwriter whose work cuts through the publicist-driven nonsense and earns heavy play on WFUV based entirely on its undeniable merit. There’s nothing even slightly “modern” or trendy about this album: it’s been made by a guy who just loves the sound of the early 70s, and who has taken pains to recreate that old Tupelo Honey and Nilsson Schmilsson vibe. For the past few years, the fashion among contemporary singer-songwriters has been to incorporate a dollop of pre-war jazz into their schtick. Milton had a song called “Winter Of ‘39” on 2003’s Scenes From The Interior, and he knows his way around a Dixieland chord progression, but there’s never anything forced about it. If the hipster scene has caught up to him, that’s not his fault; everything he does feels authentic.
Arrangements: The major difference between Milton and Scenes From The Interior is the band. It’s not that Scenes wasn’t tightly performed, it’s that it lacked a vibrant instrumental counterpoint to Milton’s voice. He’s found one here: pianist Frank Campbell, who bounces away on just about every song, and plays like he wandered in from James Taylor’s post-madhouse Apple sessions in 1969. Campbell rips off an organ ride at the conclusion of “Just One More,” but for the most part he covers the eighty-eight, and bounces from bass to treble with the verve of a ringer. Most of the tracks feature piano-bass-drums and faint guitar as a near-afterthought, but a few are richly ornamented: the quiet “Sometimes” features a full string section, the N’awlins horns come out on “St. Anne’s Parade,” and Milton raids the broom closet for traditional folk instruments on “God And Money.”
What's this record about? Milton would never write a rigors-of-the-road number; he doesn’t work in cliché. Still, a few of the tracks on Scenes From The Interior did suggest that at times, it wasn’t much fun to be a working musician: “Come To The Show” and “All I Want To Do Is Sing” are touching, but their description of the pathos of the performer felt all too real. Funny, since Milton is nothing if not an inspired showman, and a true believer in the healing power of the stagelights.
On Milton, he’s back in evangelist mode, and music is working wonders everywhere: in filthy Brooklyn bars and Lower East Side dumps, pouring out of jukeboxes and consoling the heartbroken and grieving. In “One More,” a veteran guitarist who “never had one record sold in a store” – an extremely Miltonian character – still picks up his six-string and bangs out his tunes to an audience of none. The rock scene in Williamsburg has been lampooned by a legion of cynics; to the kinder but no less observant Milton, “everyone’s part noir movie star, part schoolgirl passing notes.” He’s still haunted by the lives he could’ve led had he not found himself the prisoner of his own rock and roll dreams, but he’s reconciled himself to his own irreducible compulsions – and “song life, all your life is a song/ spend your life just singing along” is as lovely and relaxed a devotion to the muse as you’re going to get out of a contemporary guitar-slinger.
Elsewhere, he proves that he hasn’t lost his knack for writing believable and sympathetic female characters: “Real Long Time,” a loving portrait of an ex-suburban career-woman trapped between two worlds, is quintessential Milton and might be the best thing he’s ever done. On a visit to her hometown, the protagonist longs to show off her achievements to her former peers, but they’ve got no real conception of what she’s done or what she is, and all their praise feels hollow. This is the sort of scenario we’ve come to expect from Milton: succor offered to all whose fantasies haven’t quite survived their encounter with the big, bad world.
The singer: The sound of Milton’s voice – something like the hiss of steam coming out of a subway grate on a February morning – is so distinctive and welcoming, and exudes so much natural character, that he could have spent his career getting by on its timbre alone. To his credit, he’s turned himself into an excellent singer and developed a strong sense of poise and timing on the mic. His occasional battles with pitch have all been won, and are now a distant memory: on Milton, he hits his marks and, on tracks like “Sister Of The Virgin Sky,” proves he can discharge some legitimate soul-man moves. He’s no longer just a raspy-throated record collector trying to emulate his heroes; now, he’s got something of his own to add to their legacy. The strange vocal tic where he occasionally replaces his w’s with v’s hasn’t gone away, but it’s not going to bother you or anything. Consider it his concession to his Borscht Belt and Eastern European forebears.
The musicians: Campbell and bassist Sami Buccella both played in the Beeps, a latter-day trip-hop act comprised of the kind of frustrated jazzbos who gravitated to Portishead-style music in the late 90s. The Beeps’ Euro-slick sound was a lot of fun, but I’ve got to think it was a bit too well-manicured for their boho souls. No such problem here -- Milton gives both guys latitude to cut loose: “Her Place Uptown” starts with Randy Newman piano chords, but by the third verse, Campbell is lacing arpeggios over the top of the track and throwing in some Rhodes counterpoint for the hell of it. When the very next track starts with a barrelhouse ostinato, you know you’re dealing with a piano player who Rocks Many Styles, and who’s got the self-confidence to strut his stuff. In concert, the talented Buccella can sometimes get a little spacy, but he’s brought his A-game to Milton; he supports the tracks with melodic phrases and a warm, radiant bass sound. This isn’t going to mean much to most of you, and I doubt it’ll mean anything at all to Milton or to Buccella, but his playing often reminds me of George Rush, who supported Richard Davies on Telegraph. Drummer Adam Chasan, who has been part of the cast of thousands associated with Adam Green, gets to hoe himself down on “God And Money,” but keeps his parts understated and sticks to the snare and kick. By clearing away the cymbal mess and keeping his rhythm guitar out of the middle of the mixes, Milton makes space for warm music-class piano reverb and a nifty assortment of guest instrumentalists. They show up in the middle eights, mostly, add splashes of color, and then get the hell out of the way of the narratives. The fiddlers are the exception: Milton features some sharply-written and emotionally evocative string arrangements, particularly on “Sometimes,” a sad urban lullabye.
The songs: The bluesy Milton – the guy who gave you “Up And Down The River” and a few other 12-bar throwdowns on Scenes From The Interior – has taken a powder here. I don’t really miss him that much. Since he’s a writer capable of turning out a convincing Van the Man ballad like “What We Are,” it always feels like his gifts are slightly wasted when he indulges in his roadhouse auditions. On Milton, it’s major-seventh heaven most of the time, and the prevailing vibe is easy-like-Sunday-morning. Like Richard Swift, Milton knows enough about jazz to bluff his way through some remarkable Depression-era fakes (it’s hard to believe that “St. Anne’s Parade,” for instance, could have been written by anybody under the age of 70), but this isn’t Fiona-bandwagon music. Instead, he’s echoing those 60s and 70s writers who were echoing 20s and 30s musicians -- this is a fan of “Dancing In The Moonlight,” not Vashti Bunyan.
What differentiates this record from others like it? New York City is the home of the literate singer-songwriter. Lots do articulate character sketches; plenty more conjure a distinctive sense of place; and almost all of them appreciate the power of music. What makes Milton different is the size of his heart, his humanism, and his ability to empathize while retaining his diagnostic cool. In his hands, those characters aren’t just sharply-drawn – they’re nuanced, and fragile, and sympathetic even when his assessment of them turns critical. The street-scenes are soaked in nostalgia, and his acute social-commentator stance never overwhelms the sense of longing and loss that he can generate. And while nobody loves a good song more, he remains perpetually aware of the cost of singing it.
What's not so good? I know that the tradition Milton works in is by and large a sedate one, but I could have used another uptempo number or two. Also, the photograph of the singer on the album cover makes him appear a lot more rumpled and rustic than he really is, although I’m sure it was more important to him that his dog looked good.
Recommended? I loved Scenes From The Interior and played it to pieces, but everything about this album is better – it sounds better, the singing is better, the playing is better, even the jokes are better. There are times when I’m listening to it that it really does sound like a classic; every bit as deep and memorable as the LPs that Milton strives to emulate. Then I remember that this is 2006 and we’re all supposed to be listening to music piecemeal on our portable mp3 players. Perhaps the individual tracks on Milton won’t sound as immediate and hot on your iPod as Regina Spektor does. But for those of you who still believe in the album, here’s a winner for you.
Where can I get a copy/hear more? I hate linking to MySpace pages because they’re computer-crashers, but in case you want to chance it, Milton’s is listed below. You’ll find a link to the Web site there, and a show schedule. Soon he’ll still be standing right where he always does, up there on the small stage in the big city, singing his heart out.
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