An old friend of mine once summed up the core of Eels’ front man E in this rather prolific way: “You know, I love this guy E, but he’s such a mopey bastard.” And while this may seem a bit harsh, in some ways my poignant cohort rightly captured that common element of our many favorite male singer-songwriters: they pour out their tortured, strung out, and wistful souls in their storytelling and composition. And frankly, who can blame them? Famous moper E creates the emotional songs of the Eels from his fairly tragic life of betrayal and death, and other famous mournful crooner Elliott Smith transmitted through music a particularly short life of depression and drug abuse. It is the completely raw emotion of these men that make their songs beautiful, however, regardless of supposed mopey-ness. Coming out of this same element, Gus Black propagates Autumn Days, a darkly melodic album that also includes the occasional buoyant tone, in turn leaving us as listeners with a whole new set of lovely songs along which to emote.
Taking full credit for his arrangements and backing himself up with some friends and area studio musicians in Los Angeles, Black’s album encompasses the traditional qualities of a solid folk-rock record, and explores more adventurous grounds as well. Songs such as “Long Beach” and “Helicopter” have darker, more rockin’ vibes paired with melodic vocals, very reminiscent of what makes the work of the Eels so innovative. Conversely, “Traffic and Sound,” “3234 (Imbecile),” and “Fire Escape” pack power in their delicate and vivid tones, much like our old friends Elliott Smith and John Vanderslice in vocal quality. Black even manages to create what seems to be a singer-songwriter version of Yo La Tengo’s “Stockholm Syndrome” in “Weekend Soldier” (most likely a coincidence, but nonetheless respectable). The overall sound of the album remains most comparable to the pop-rock, folksy sounds of Grant Lee Phillips, especially in “Trillion Things” and “Rollercoaster.”
In an absolutely beautiful and successful fashion, Black incorporates all of these influences and produces an original and unyielding record, reminding us that there is still much that can be done with this genre of music. Bringing together layers of string arrangements, acoustic guitars, piano, and emotionally tumultuous vocals, Black’s songs will break your heart as his haunting instrumentation manages to tell the story just as much as his pensive lyrics. He wraps up his record with the sweet and emotionally striking “Shatter” and “Autumn Days,” two songs just begging to be incorporated into movie soundtracks and road trip playlists, and then leaves us with a bonus cover track. Who knew that a musician could make “You Are My Sunshine,” a traditionally light-hearted and child-like tune, so heart-wrenching? I certainly didn’t, but I’m sure as hell glad that my new friend Gus managed to do so.
Grant Lee Phillips – Ladies Love Oracle
Eels – Beautiful Freak
John Vanderslice – Pixel Revolt