Down at the 5-Star is laid-back and ruminative, full of countrified touches like pedal steel, harmonica and close, male-female harmonies, but defined, mostly, by personal confidences. Red House Painters’ bass player Jerry Vessel writes about his garden, his young nephew, the low-key pleasures of road-side dining, arranging casual observations into gemlike patterns.
This second Heirlooms of August album feels more like a solo record than 2011’s Forever Moon because it centers on Vessel’s whiskery voice, but also because it hovers on the border between art and personal confession. Even the love songs – “Annabelle” – seem to exist mostly in Vessel’s head, as he wonders about the smell, taste and maternal inclinations of a chance encounter. It’s a pretty song, but without momentum. You can’t imagine the singer making his move.
Still the music is so pretty that you don’t much mind a bit of navel-gazing. “Antonio de Torres,” named after the famous guitar-maker, is moodily gorgeous, full of baroque flurries and runs. “Jerusalem Ridge” is likewise intricate with guitar picking, pizzicato strings and heady throbs of cello, a swath of chamber music slipped between baritone country musings.
“Cleopatra Eyeliner,” however, is the song where Vessel pulls it all together, layering lovely guitar and cello over a line-drawn story of a man and a child on an outing. They meet a beautiful woman, carefully described, her big afro, her green vintage dress, her “Cleopatra eyeliner”, but oblivious to the narrator. He wishes, briefly, that he were 19 again and sings a line or two about lust. Still the weight of the song is all on the present, the very sweet relationship between a man and his small nephew, carried down sleeping onto the subway. Love, sex, mortality and the acceptance of things the way they are all jostle comfortably in the song, making their points without much fuss or any need to resolve differences between them.
And that, maybe, is Down at the 5-Star’s charm, in the warm, knowing, casual way that it turns over ideas in its hand and considers them without judgment. Unhurried, unfussy and, at times, unassumingly gorgeous, it’s a record that’s comfortable where it is – that is, smack in the middle of ordinary life, and looking around.
DOWNLOAD: “Cleopatra Eyeliner” “Jerusalem Ridge”