Southern exposure

By BARRY THOMPSON  |  January 7, 2009

Yet it'd be equally odd to brand Carpenter a solo act. Under the Beat Circus moniker, he's remanifested as an improvisational artist and a vaudeville-type composer; now he's even undertaken the role of regular ol' lead singer — which he says he'll continue with "until that gets boring. Then I'll move onto something else."

He continues, "Beat Circus started as a way of making music to improvise and then do group improvisation. A few years later, I decided improvisation had become a crutch and I wasn't interested in it anymore. So I wrote Dreamland, which is a fully composed 150-page score for 12 musicians. Now I feel like the reliance on arrangements has become a crutch, so I started writing deeply personal songs with the lyrics first, which is night-and-day from Dreamland."

Maybe that's true for the methodology, but soundwise, the polar opposite of Beat Circus circa '06 would have to be the equivalent of Dee Dee Ramone's rap album, or something else really hackneyed and depressing. Nonetheless, the handful of freshly mixed Boy from Black Mountain tracks I've heard are miles away from boisterous carnival music. "The February Train" recalls traditional Cajun balladry, its bittersweet countenance atypical of the nouveau noir-Americana sect. "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" is a country-billy rouser coated with ghost-story æthereality. Skittish violins and Carpenter's newly employed throat singing (suggesting he smokes four packs of cigarettes a day, though I don't imagine he does) forge a visceral anxiety on "The Quick and the Dead."

Contemporary, urban-dwelling Americana acts who return to someone else's roots are always suspect. But Beat Circus have no such problem: Carpenter was raised close to the source, in a devout Baptist household in the rural Florida panhandle. "A lot of these songs are stories handed down from my dad about his life growing up as a watermelon farmer. I recently sent him a mix we just finished, and he loved it. He didn't seem so interested in the process of what I was doing. When I gave him that song, which is all about him growing up in this cracker house, it was really moving and gratifying and opened up this big dialogue between us."

Of course, if Carpenter had always been so enthused by Southern traditions — Johnny Cash, the Carter Family, shape-note and congregational singing — that inspired Boy from Black Mountain, he never would've moved to Boston. The early '90s saw him coming up in a then-vigorous Gainesville scene; he played in Less Than Jake and Sister Hazel as well as in River Phoenix's band, Aleka's Attic, and What It Is with Avi Bortnick. A fascination with no-wave and John Zorn–style avant-garde jazz prompted him to form Beat Science, a precursor to Beat Circus, and brought about his relocation to Boston in 2001. This made him a pioneer, of sorts. Never before had a member of the Carpenter clan left the South.

"My dad was sitting at the dining room table," he recalls, "and I said, 'Oh, there's no culture down here.' I remember my dad yelling at the top of his lungs: 'I think the South has a lot of culture!' I never thought he'd get that defensive about it. Of course he was right. Your family heritage and everything related to your family starts to affect everything you see and eventually ends up in your art, somehow. It took a while, in my case."

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