People intimately familiar with Paleface’s music are usually familiar with his background: Daniel Johnston discovered him, Beck was his roommate, Danny Fields molded him, and after having a huge influence on the New York City anti-folk movement and two major label releases, Paleface sort of fell away, self-releasing cassettes and albums until Concord’s Ramseur Records, home to weirdos and outliers and, of course, the early breeding ground of the Avett Brothers, picked him up in 2009 for the release of stellar The Show Is On The Road. He sings lead on the Avetts’ “Dancin’ Daze”, in fact — a fact I also didn’t learn until much later. (I love that track. A lot.)
I didn’t know any of this when I first saw him in 2008, opening for Holy Ghost Tent Revival at the Garage in Winston-Salem. (It was during a prolific period of me and shep. driving around to see Holy Ghost in dumb places. Like Winston. And Norfolk. And later Chattanooga. Paleface was there, too, actually, in Chattanooga. And yes, Winston-Salem is a dumb place. That time warp between Winston and Greensboro at 3 am makes it dumb.) He opened the set and I was charmed, and a little dumbfounded, by his prancing, flailing performance; Paleface is unlike any other performer out there today — he’s odd and oddball, and his music sounds straightforward and simplistic until you start listening harder, when you realize that while it sounds simple, it’s also deeply sad and smart and funny, lyrically, all at once. It took me a few times seeing him to get it, but now that I’ve gotten it, he’s one of my favorite live performers. (I have a lot of them. When you see 75+ shows a year, you have to. Unless you just go see American Aquarium, like, 20 times in one year, which I once did. Then it’s easy.)
Paleface and drummer Mo Samalot are still touring in support of their 2010 Ramseur release One Big Party, which is a bit of a misnomer. Paleface writes catchy, simple songs, and Mo’s metronomically tight drumming give the songs on this album a feeling of childishness that’s both misleading and disarming. It’s certainly a record with a beat and a swing, but the songs themselves are strange and a little tragic in places, an underlying quiet and thoughtfulness that Paleface is actually really great at. It’s all overlaid with Paleface’s distinctive voice, familiar and yet somehow new, and his usual bluesy phrasing in his delivery.
It’s darker, too, than some of his other albums — songs that sound, through his guitar and the backbeat, that they should be happy, but like “She’s So”, it turns quiet a little heartbreaking in the middle, where the opening makes you want to move, and the hooky, upbeat “Rock N Roll”, which is about getting your heart trampled on by a rock and roll lifestyle. It’s a stellar and deceptive album, one that’s some about growing up and moving on, about getting your heart broken and staying upright. It’s more electric, too, than his previous homegrown fingerpicked acoustic albums, and there’s a plaintiveness in the electric guitar that belies Paleface’s happy-go-lucky usual sound. It’s lovely, actually, quietly stunning and sad, and I will be glad to have heard it, this time around — the last time I saw Paleface, last August with American Aquarium, it hadn’t come out yet and the songs were unfamiliar. There’s a familiarity to it, now, because it sounds like I expect Paleface to sound, and then it turns corners, darker corners, and surprises me. I’m excited to hear it live.
Paleface & Mo are at the Pour House in Raleigh tonight, with Nick & the Babes. Doors at 8, show at 9:30, tickets are $8. Highly recommended — it’ll be a night of weird folk and straight up Americana, dancing and singing along. The Pour House has great Thursday beer specials. You should go. I am.