You may well ask. Rather than something out of Harry Potter, the title refers to a famous Bulgarian circus dynasty, the patriarch, Lazaro Dobrich founding the first circus in Sofia with his brother Aleksandr and going on to become director of the Bulgarian State Circus in 1956. His brother’s children moved to America where, as Lola Dobritch and Al Dobritch, they became, respectively, one of the centuries great tight wire performers and a circus impresario and director, running the Circus Circus Casino in Las Vegas and marrying film star Rusty Allen before committing suicide in 1971 after being charged with kidnapping.
The point being that sometimes life leads you and you have no control over what happens, which is where the album, the second duo outing by Blind Pilots members Kati Claborn and Luke Ydstie, comes in with the songs built around characters, the choices they make and those made for them.
Whereas the debut was a sparse, sitting-room affair largely constructed around guitar and banjo, this, co-produced with Adam Selzer, pulls out all the stops with guest musicians and instruments that now include drums, organ, pedal steel, accordion, fiddle, clarinet and ukulele in service of the couple’s magnificent harmonies.
It begins with ‘Seven Lies’, a simple strum and Claborn on lead with puttering drums and Kyleen King’s violin and viola adding extra textures on a reflective number about the burden of memory (“must we relive all our mistakes”) that harks to the days of late 60s British folk rock, moving on to the suitably lazing ‘Dreamer’ with its fiddle and pedal steel bringing interesting imagery (“ you put me out but I’m still around quiet as the ashes on some desert ground”) to its musing on the arbitrary nature of how people are assigned worth or value, even if it does also summon the idea of a ghostly stalker.
Featuring third harmonies by Halli Anderson from River Whyless, it segues directly into ‘Dominoes’ which, underpinned by the bass line and Cooper Trail’s drums, draws on a legend from hometown Astoria, Oregon, about a woman in a19th century brothel who would turn the men she seduced into sturgeon and, while none of that’s actually mentioned (the video is more explicit), it does have an ominous refrain in “you know I know you got your own set of dominoes”. According to Ydstie, it’s also about being trapped in a cycle of working themselves into the ground and finding solace in drink.
Al Dobritch finally gets his turn in the spotlight with ‘The Show Goes On’ which, featuring the album title and sung by Capron, relates his rise to become “prince of tents” before, after “living fast, & running late telling every lie that he did know” until he “took off his crown laid it over on the bed” and “climbed his l5 flights” before jumping to his death, slowing down as the message is played out against banjo, organ and pedal steel that “rings are filled and debts are owed, and bones are healed but you cannot take it with you when you go”.
The three part harmonies return for the intro to the soft strum of ‘Peaches’, Ydstie taking up the languid vocals, strings and muted banjo underscoring the emotional vulnerability when you open yourself to someone inherent in lines like “croon to me of misery, you know I am bound to sing along” and “I’ve been trying everything you just didn’t give me all the keys”.
It’s back to the circus for ‘The Empty Cups’, a sad little, harmonica haunted duet sung from the perspective of the performing lion, broken into sawdust submission (“I go to sleep each night with teeth around my throat a ring of fire”) that closes with the heartbreaking “we earn our keep and then we bring down our gazelles when we’re asleep so don’t look at me like I’m a man do you think I’m standing up just because I can?”
The end piano note flows seamlessly into ‘Dragon Or A Bird’, a bluesier rumble laced with baritone ukulele and clarinet about the times when it’s hard to know what’s real and what isn’t usually under the influence of certain substances. Again there’s barely gap before the drone and plucked banjo that introduces Claborn on ‘So I Go’, a song inspired by the physical remains Santa Fe’s history, it’s theme of mortality (“every one has got their time of dying, so they say, and mine might as well be today”) echoed by the mournful dobro and trumpet in the final stretch.
Featuring Claborn on vibraphone and sung by Ydstie to just a simple bass and guitar arrangement, the late night feel of ‘A Mention’ moves things towards a close with what he describes as a song from the person on the weaker side of a former relationship (“where’s your goddamn shame and would it kill you to mention my name?”), the album ending with Capron’s slow waltzing piano-led ‘86 Pages of Secrets’, a pedal steel and organ-stained series of snapshots over the course of a single night and changing narrators, sepia frames of sadness (“could there be so much heartache in one little life”) and words thrown like a dagger as, almost gospel-hued, it builds to a sudden end.
Lyrically downbeat it may be, but there’s a lingering beauty between these shadows that calls out to be embraced. The Hackles are indeed rising.
Artists’ website: www.thehackles.com
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