Jeff Beam navigates the Flying Trapeze

Without a net
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  December 8, 2010

Talk about a high-wire act. On his fourth full-length album in as many years, young songwriter/performer/engineer Jeff Beam has set out to make an important album that's listenable, a record that both challenges ideas about pop music and embraces them.

He's a pop-music aficionado, playing in Beatles cover performances both large and small, and that pop aesthetic is infused throughout his music: soaring backing harmonies, upbeat guitar punctuations, descending vocal melodies. But while the 12 songs here clock in at 33 minutes, there really isn't a song you can point to as a single.

The result is an album of challenging and progressive music for lovers of pop music that isn't particularly pop. For one thing, you can barely make out the lyrics to sing along, as they're so often drenched in reverb and mixed to the middle. Pop music sort of demands a strong vocalist, and while Beam is good enough to make it work, he's no natural singer. For another, there isn't any of the simplicity we've come to expect of pop music. Despite the fact that he played and recorded and mixed this whole thing himself (he'll play with a backing band he's calling Ice Storm of '98 for the release show), it's incredibly dense, notable especially for its varied and interesting percussion performances.

Beam's pretty standoffish from the open, actually, with a first-song instrumental in "Fly Trap" full of digital snares, swirling guitar noise, piano, funk bass, and the feel that it will open into a huge jam, à la LCD Soundsystem, but the fact that it never does creates tension, which isn't alleviated by the aimless (yet surprisingly sunshiny) guitar lead in the finish.

Or how about his song titles — "Portraits of Poor Traits;" "Wake Jolk;" "Currently, A Currency Urgency!" — that are somewhere between Sufjan Stevens and Dr. Seuss, but don't often actually refer to what's going on in the song.

The title track is probably the strongest here, with a great guitar open and a rumbling percussion like playing on the outside of an oil drum. An unrequited love song, he also gets off some of his best lines: "I can tell time by the way you walk." In the finish, the rhythm guitar is nicely layered with a bit of xylophone and some organ to create a long play-out that stretches and flexes without getting ponderous.

You might also keep coming back to "Can't You Feel the Curve of the Earth," with a vampy delivery and an infusion of horns. Beam consistently integrates digital elements without losing an organic feel.

Ultimately, though, "Mere Mirror" seems telling. When Beam repeatedly belts out "say something" as the only lyrics of the song, it does seem to be an illustration of conscious reflection. Four albums in, Beam is still experimenting, is still searching for exactly what it is he wants to say.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached

VENUS FLYING TRAPEZE | Released by Jeff Beam | with Dave Gutter + Chris Moulton | at Empire Dine & Dance | Dec 10 |

  Topics: CD Reviews , Dr. Seuss, Sufjan Stevens, rock,  More more >
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