Apparently what fires Seth Geltman up is Astor Piazolla – fiery, complex, challenging music, stirring feet into instinctive dance. But it’s a stiller, smaller flame that Piazolla has lit in Geltman’s heart. His own songwriting is a more reserved thing altogether. You could compare what Seth Geltman and Thomas Blomster do with Pale Boy to what Stephen Merritt does with Magnetic Fields: “from the brain straight through the heart – the shortest distance”, as Geltman puts it.
Although not as accessible (or Broadway-bound) as Merritt’s, Geltman’s songwriting is similarly sophisticated. It’s cerebral, and sometimes difficult for ears attuned to pure pop. Dark closeted harmonies abound; melodies fade into shadowy doubts rather than aspiring. An air of introversion and dry, wounded carefulness is always present. If Spice Girls had Geltman’s number, they wouldn’t call it. If Stephen Sondheim had it, he might.
Pale Boy’s delicate and mannered debut is loaded with thought and detail. Life is constantly being breathed in by Blomster’s exquisite arrangements: a chamber-orchestra palette of fluttering jazz and flamenco guitars, violins, reeds and brass plus Blomster’s own piano, ever-crisp drumming and knack for tuned percussion. Drawing on latter-day classical, jazz, and the area where the two blend together, this is music fleshed out with the same kind of light, miniaturist detail as Penguin Cafe Orchestra. Seth handles most of the singing himself – his light bloodless voice as untouchable and inflection-free as Leonard Cohen’s and as transparent as blown newsprint.
Although Pale Boy are Denver-based, their spiritual home is European – either an autumnal and imaginary Paris of skating rinks, cafe culture and falling leaves, or the ascerbic Germany that Brecht and Weil knew. Or, perhaps, a hundred points between Moscow and San Francisco where dispossessed Old Worlders with shabby coats and battered instrument cases laid down their baggage and played for a while… Think that. Then factor in a touch of Smog, with trailer parks, shitty hotels and bad teeth replaced by faded, once-grand apartments and battered books. That nails the Pale Boy world as closely as anything.
The other occasional touchstone is Love’s ‘Forever Changes’ – intricate folk strumming, surging orchestras, and dreamy heads running up against barriers. Just A Thought (in which Seth, up to his knees in toil, casts his mind free over slinking brass and woodwind) hints at Aloneagainor in its mingled innocence and frustration – “There’s so much more than the grind every day – / there’s the blue, and the cats, and the letter K. / Far from the chatter and the money hunt, / there’s a thought of an autumn afternoon.”
A darker taste of Love, mingled with twelve-tone operetta, enters Promise Me, shading into a moody resignation: “Promise me obscurity / Turn out the spotlight… / Come and go but never leave. / Let me make my best guess how to ride your slippery lines, / you fleeting joking prayer.” Best of all are the sweet express-train violins, budding trumpets and John Adams throb of It’s Good, the point where Pale Boy succumb to instinct (“Over all this sprawling mess, / rising slow in the abdomen, / taking hold of what we know. / Is this another fine mess / or an opulent waltz in the wrong direction?”) and where a new note of assurance enters Seth’s voice: “Yes, it’s good. / Just sit tight, / wait for light…”
Here and everywhere in this painstakingly adult music you can sense the presence of those cracks and draughts which betray us each time we succumb to the unexpected currents and shamings that toy with stable lives and clean ambitions. “Facts march all over an ordinary day / Paper’s got nothing to say except scandals, sports, atrocities… / Scattered friction everywhere.” The understated title track might bury itself under a forgettable melody, but its vivid lyric (of lost directions, of a hectoring young man engulfed by a stifling fence) penetrates deeper. Acrobat is cutting and unforgiving, a bored audience turning away from a “gaudy little crackpot showing off with all his might” and ignoring him as he heads into his fatal fall. Bossa-nova and muted brass line the music of October Hat, a surreal ballet of a song in which one scribbled sonnet, lost to the sea, signifies one man’s misdirected attempt to capture and circumscribe the sense of his own life.
“Well, you made your point, / and the only audience that mattered never showed up” Geltman murmurs pointedly on Hum In The Clouds. Storm-tossed lounge jazz rolls around him, wrestling with a Reich-ian xylophone, and the debris of divorce bangs into both. “What did you think would happen? Why did you leave so soon? / Do you know how much was missed and lost on those Saturday afternoons?” Throughout the record, mixed feelings and shifting views struggle for dominance; as in Wearing Your Time Out, when patient drudgery gives way to “the corner of your eye / going suddenly awry / after getting lost on lines of reason.”
This ambiguity is best caught in the trio of songs sung by Jeana Dodge. Her restrained classical soprano lends them an affectingly uptight and anxious yearning. The light, mournful marriage waltz of Almost illustrates profoundly thankful love, yet ever-so-slightly sullied by restlessness and defensiveness – “Almost a connection that couldn’t exist. / Almost all I need to subsist.” On Underside Of A Terrible Thought, an unspecified angst is picked apart with determination, disgust and fascination – “Hold it high in the muddy light… / Hold your nose and hold it very tight… / It warms your brain and quickens your blood… / this twisted tangled orphan.” The polite cadences and lullaby-vibraphone of All We’re Left With show compressed resentment seeping from the civilised rubble of a relationship – “Kept my patience, bought the flowers, went to college, put out fires… / brought home bacon, / scrubbed the windows… / and I followed the rules.”
Less successful are attempts at straightforward anger, which only sap Pale Boy of both spirit and tunes. I Hate You greys out into dull minimalism (in spite of precise, venomous lyrics (and Blomster’s poignant arrangement of funeral reeds), and while Ton Of Blue gropes at the lovelorn existential dread of the deepest blues, it only ends up sulking, morose and snappish, in its conservatoire setting. No – Pale Boy’s understated emotions fare better with subtler, yet more complex bonds and empathies. An endearing, awkward eroticism nibbles at the floating, detached spring-dream of Shy Beast. The wistful, tear-jerking strings and muffled brass of I Know What You’re Thinking make it a Scott Walker fall-apart thing. Here, Seth singing at his gentlest. “I know you’ve been drinking / from the oldest hope that ever was. Rising up through your spine, / flowing through the brain and through the heart, the part glowing… / And I know what you’re thinking – / ‘Get me through this jagged night’.”
At the end, Stay Hidden makes a quiet and wary bid for intimacy, with Seth pursuing truth with all the extra senses of the once-bitten. “It leaks its news through unsuspecting clues, / it lies in wait for all of us.” By this time, those cracks and gaps have been assuaged by something. Perhaps it was the still, small sound of a hopeful trumpet. This album’s not for everyone; but if you’ve silently burned, quietly frayed or seen something dear to you stretch out of your gentle grasp, it’ll strike up a little chord in you.
Pale Boy: ‘Pale Boy’
Kale Music, ERG82299 (no barcode)
Released: 18th April 2000
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