Symphony of buds

Nat Baldwin and friends make a familiar but beguiling album
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  April 16, 2008

Apart from being an ephemeral player in the local music scene — he played at Strange Maine last fall, while living in Bar Harbor — New Hampshire-based upright bassist Nat Baldwin has some very influential friends. David Longstreth of the Dirty Projectors plays 12-string guitar all over Baldwin’s new album, Most Valuable Player (Broken Sparrow), and Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear, opening for no less than Radiohead this summer, produced it.

Baldwin returns to Portland on April 22 to promote Most Valuable Player a week before its national release, opening up a handsome indie-folk bill at SPACE Gallery with Strand of Oaks and Soltero. If his recent performances and this assured, unique album are any indication, Baldwin could well steal the show.

Like Longstreth, whose guttural howl has been startling indie kids for years, Baldwin’s primary asset is his falsetto, of which he makes full use. Most of his songs begin at high octaves and quaver their way downward before a tumultuous chorus lifts dramatically upward again. Unlike with Longstreth, the technique never becomes shrill or polarizing in Baldwin’s hands; on “Dome Branches,” he elongates that title phrase to abstraction, but the effect sounds organic, as if hearing a flower blossom and collapse inward over and over again.

Nat Baldwin with Soltero + Strand of Oaks | 8:30 pm April 22 | at SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St, Portland | $5 | 207.828.5600
Most Valuable Player alternates between delicate chamber pieces and gliding avant-pop tracks, influenced both by indie folk and improvised jazz (Baldwin was a student of the prolific composer Anthony Braxton). All of the songs are anchored by Baldwin’s repeating basslines — deep and scratchy, like a bullfrog with a sore throat — and most feature Longstreth’s jangling 12-string, which chimes in and out of the mix in propulsive minor keys. Not coincidentally, Longstreth’s performance sounds a lot like Ed Droste’s work in Grizzly Bear; that band’s all-purpose instrumentalist, Chris Taylor, trademarks his production of Most Valuable Player with woodwinds that contribute to the album’s orchestral tilt.

If the disc is quite clearly the sum of its participants, it’s still strikingly original. The baroque, schematic aesthetic of Baldwin’s bass is, depending on the song, either amplified or subverted by the surrounding theatrics. On the opening anthem “Lake Erie,” Longstreth’s buoyant guitar gives the scatty vocals an uplifting kick, and his mimicry of Baldwin’s cadence on “De-Attached” has the revelry of free jazz.

These more clattering songs suit Baldwin’s lyrical sensibility well, as his impressionistic singing gives some depth to largely opaque lyrics. They read like secrets he’s keeping to himself, and he seems to admit as much during “One Two Three,” with lines such as “I will not let myself be the subject” and “But which one do you want the world to see?” Elsewhere, his suggestions squander a few opportunities for big emotional payoffs, which is a shame because his music is obviously capable of them.

It is, though, perhaps because of this interesting balance — the reserved words and swooning vocals, the metrical bass and symphonic flair — that Most Valuable Player’s triumphs feel so modest and refreshing. “Mask I Wear” is one of the most graceful and genuinely romantic songs I’ve heard in a while, a winsome waltz that soars on a clarinet bridge and fluttering improv. Likewise, “Black Square” begins with a serene 2/3 waltz and grows warmer in opulent fits and starts.

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