A local covers album that doesn't focus on the hits

Ambassador Beam
By SAM PFEIFLE  |  July 20, 2011

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MULTIPLE FACES Jeff Beam shows off many talents.
Hopefully, the awesomeness that was Beautiful Locals hasn't slipped from the Portland consciousness yet. Just like that 2005 collection of Portland bands covering other Portland bands organized by Mark Curdo, local erstwhile frontman Jeff Beam's newest project is a covers album, The Maine Embassy, that focuses on our local scene, if in more roundabout fashion. Both projects have at their hearts a love of the music made 'round these parts, and both ultimately succeed because of that honest devotion.

Nobody is playing on hits here, trying to live off other people's success. I'd be surprised if you've even heard of two of the songwriters Beam covers, and the rest of the tracks are what you might call deep cuts from better-known local acts. And the seven-song EP, plus a couple of bonus tracks culled from Paul Simon and Harry Nilsson, is all Beam in terms of sound, continuing his penchant for slightly off-putting reverbed vocals and interesting arrangements.

Like the bass-heavy treatment of Wesley Allen Hartley and the Traveling Trees' "Slow Shards" (from 2010's Narrow Gauge Quad Trains), which lends a punctuating stomp to a song that, like much of the Trees' stuff, was originally much more even keeled. Hartley's sound, too, is mostly wrapped up in his high, reedy vocals, so the almost-silly take Beam lends lightens up things like "worms in my pockets, maggots in my eyes," lending the song different life.

This happens even more so with Kurt Baker's "Bad Luck," which Beam opens with a little of that record-playing-backward treatment, then starts singing lightly and fey before switching to his "Kurt Baker voice." That vampy, Joe Jackson delivery is a nice homage to Baker, who really carved that sound out for himself in town, but a hiccuppy digital treatment in the background and the more whispered verses lends a vulnerability to the song's protagonist that's an interesting contrast to the ironic bravado that defines most of what Baker does. It's cool to hear that known personality taken in this direction, capped by a trumpet backing in the finish that lends a classical vibe.

Unfortunately, on "The Excommunication," a song listed as "Excommunication" on the Lucid's self-titled record from earlier this year, Beam's take is more lifeless than new life. That falsetto that has taken Dominic Lavoie so long to nail is a struggle for Beam, and while Lavoie's version does have just a bit of reverb on the vocals, they're otherwise pretty naked, which is part of the song's power. You feel so close to him. Beam keeps us at arm's length with multi-tracking and effects and the song falls flat.

It's hard to know what kind of treatment he's lending to songs by Interobang and Naythen Wilson, as I'm only somewhat familiar with the former, and completely unfamiliar with the latter (though I'm Facebook friends with him: The man has 839 "friends," yet says, "For the most part, I hate to be around people . . . I enjoy people suffering." Okey-doke). Beam recorded with Wilson when he was just getting started (well, he's still sort of just getting started — oh, and that was Wilson playing the trumpet on that Kurt Baker song), and is long-time friends with the former, now known as Laminated Cat, so it's interesting to hear his take on the bands and songwriters that have influenced him.

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  Topics: CD Reviews , Paul Simon, George Harrison, Harry Nilsson,  More more >
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