Rare is the album that grabs you from the start, from the first plucked notes, the initial poetic sentence, with promises of deeply felt stories and engaging tunes. This album is one of those, and like the proverbial metaphoric onion, the layers are many.
Laserbeams and Dreams, Andy Friedman‘s third studio release, opens with the solemn “It’s Time for Church” which turns drinking, music and art into a form of worship, with the turntable its altar. “Motel On The Lake” is a sepiatone meditation on the faded glory of lives in decline resigned to a mythical place “where all the old things go.” A woman who was once a fine dancer is now compared to a hollow old tree, “frozen now and tangled like a Catskill Mountain Pompeii.” Friedman’s poetic and ghostly images are heartbreaking, accompanied by David Goodrich’s haunting electric guitar. (Goodrich also produced the album.)
The album was recorded over a twenty-four hour period with a lone guitar overdub, Goodrich’s bottleneck on “Old Pennsylvania,” a lazy trot of a folksong with Stephan Crump’s standup bass anchoring Friedman’s and Goodrich’s backwoods guitar. The sense of place Friedman relates is palpable, the tug of roots strong. (Crump’s wife, Jen Chapin, daughter of the late Harry Chapin, lent Friedman her father’s guitar for the session.)
“Roll On, John Herald” is a gritty, rockin’ blues number honoring the late John Herald, and any troubadour or forgotten legend who’s ever traveled extensively and in obscurity. Friedman growls “John ate oatmeal from a bowl and his clothes were too small and he drove a white Nissan sedan.” Herald, founding member of the late-’50s bluegrass trio the Greenbriar Boys, befriended Friedman during the singer’s early career.
“Quiet Blues,” recorded minutes after “John Herald,” is a sensitive lament on the death of peace and quiet in the digital age, while “May I Rest When Death Approaches” is based on a series of poems written by Friedman’s father-in-law days before his passing. Not all is death and tribute on Laserbeams and Dreams, as “Schroon Lake” is a (frustratingly unfinished) spoken word piece that hearkens back to Friedman’s early days as a “slideshow poet” in 2002 — he quit his day job as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker — accompanying projections of his original artwork and photographs. (Friedman is a widely published illustrator and, under the pseudonym Larry Hat, a cartoonist with work appearing in The New Yorker, New York Times and Utne Reader.)
The album closes with “Down by the Willow,” featuring Friedman, Crump and Goodrich at their best, melding poetry with hypnotic and atmospheric melody and rhythm. It’s a completely transporting song. Friedman’s songwriting is deeply affecting, dusty and sagacious, completely free of cliche. The layers are many — peel away. We highly recommend this one.