Chris Bathgate — Salt Year.
This album absolutely blew me away. It’s delicate and carefully put together, gothic and traditional, noisy and dischordant and heartbreakingly light and lovely, sometimes all of those things in the same song. Based in delicate piano and acoustic guitar lines, the strength of it is in melody and Bathgate’s shuddery, plaintive voice, as well as the way he textures his songs with crashing electric guitars and counterpoint violin. There’s drumming on the album, but the beat and rhythm, the percussiveness of it, is all in the guitars and the mandolins, especially obvious in the driving lines of “No Silver”.
It’s a dark dream of an album, shimmering and shining just out of focus on the horizon like the highway on a hot summer day; the off-kilter drums and electric vs acoustic guitars on “Levee”, the crash of that song versus the quiet beauty of its immediate predecessor “Poor Eliza” and its immediate follower “Fur Curled on the Sad Road”. Parts of this album feel very much like a mirage, like something you’ve imagined or dreamt up in the dark of 3 am or the heat of a highway.
Bathgate’s band rocks and twangs while he wails and harmonizes with himself, and on “In The City”, he even pulls out his Michigan roots with some gorgeous muted R&B horns laid over duelling pedal steels and acoustic guitars. He links that to the end of the album with “Time”, more horns and Rolling Stones-esque guitars. Every track on Salt Year has its own distinct feeling, a tiny ecosystem within the world of the album, but they all harken back to what’s come before them, the album growing more complex and thoughtful as you progress through the tracks.
And “Salt Year”, the title track, is a stunning lament of heartbreak and hope, a thickly layered song that somehow manages to feel stripped down and intensely plaintive and sad. It’s easily one of my five favorite songs of 2011, by about a mile. It made me cry at my desk the first time I listened to it. It’s the centerpiece of an ambitious and striking album, and Bathgate should be absolutely proud of what he’s done.
Chris and his band were supposed to play the Nightlight last night, but van troubles — everyone has them, alas — forced him and the band to cancel a handful of dates. I really, really hope he gets back here this summer, because this album is a slow burner that’s going to take the country by storm, and he couldn’t deserve it more.