by Tom O’Connor
Music fans of a certain age fondly recall the days when you put an album on the turntable then stared at the album cover art, searching for clues about the musician/band. Very often, your only chance of unlocking, or at least revealing, the mysterious artistic intent of your favorite band was on the cover of the record itself. Those days are long gone of course, and trying to explain them to anyone under the age of 25 is a waste of time, unless you enjoy triggering elaborate eye-rolls in youngsters. But album art still counts for something, and that’s why I was, at first, a bit confounded by Chris Duarte’s new album, The Fan Club.
Duarte is featured on the cover, looking relaxed with his Strat and sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Post Punk.” A pretty odd choice for a Texas born/raised guitar slinger with a well-deserved reputation for blazing honky-tonk style SRV-esque blues. As someone who actually spent the 80s in the punk rock trenches and the 90’s in the post-punk diaspora, these words carry some weight with me and they mean something very specific to a lot of people… Is the T-shirt a statement? An inside joke? Or was it just clean laundry? Even after a few listens I’m still not sure.
Chris Duarte is a formidable player. Born in San Antonio and raised in Texas-style blues in Austin, no one is going to dispute his bona fides. So what to make of the mishmash of styles in this album? Not post-punk but definitely post-something.
The album starts with the studio-created murmur of an audience and an announcer’s “Live” intro, that was also, clearly, recorded in a studio. This leads into opening track, “313,” which is, above all else, a Phish-y feeling jam band exploration. Interesting but a low-key way for a Texan to kick off an album, it is jokingly interspersed with “crowd noise.” I’m certain they weren’t using the intro or the crowd noise to try to fool anyone into thinking this was a live recording, it is just another sonic studio layer that sounds mostly ironic with its inclusion. Not bad, just a puzzling choice.
Later songs sound much more on target. “Thick of it,” “She’s Fine,” and “Rolling Freight Train” have that taste of SRV flavored, straight-ahead honky-tonk blues where the lead breaks really tell you more than the lyrics do. Then, “Wasting Away” wears its Texas / Tejano oom-pa roots on its sleeve, to the point of bordering on irony maybe, but I dare you not to two-step to this catchy tune, just a trumpet riff away from full-on mariachi.
Maybe the Post-Punk wardrobe was a reference to a couple of the less successful songs on the album. “Pop Song” and “You Suck” are a couple of power-chordy Marshall stack pushers that sound more like Blink-182 outtakes than anything else. Once you’re over 50 it is pretty hard to pull off “bratty” in a song, people. That sort of attitude is best left to the teenage rockers.
I was very confused by his inclusion of a cover of Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriter’s Blues.” Full disclosure: I “live in Los Angeles” and am, occasionally, an actual screenwriter, so the original song, off of SC’s seminal Ruby Vroom album has been part of my personal soundtrack since it’s release in 1994. Created in what was then an avant-garde space between jazz and hip-hop, the original “Screenwriter’s Blues” is a noir-y haunting song that, in five minutes, captures the dislocation, desperation and desolation of Los Angeles using very spare instrumentation, a few samples, and some tangible sorrow, anger and regret. Chris’ cover stretches the song out to ten minutes and treats it like a jam hammock loaded with what, again, sounds more like irony than anything else. It is such an odd choice I had to do some Googling and found a writer who described Duarte’s version as “a fan favorite” …so maybe that is why it is included here. Otherwise I really can’t explain it.
Overall though, there are more hits than misses here. Two stand-outs for me are, “I Can’t Help Myself”, which casually shows off Duarte’s tasteful guitar chops in a sweet swing that reminds me of the best of Les Paul – all it is missing is a vocal from Mary Ford. The album closes with “Mary,” a tender, kind-hearted and sincere-sounding love song that works like the best Flaming Lips ballads, finding the profound in the everyday moments of love. It is the most open-hearted new song I’ve heard in 2017, unless he is being ironic in that one too, but I really hope he isn’t.
The Fan Club can be found:
iTunes/Apple Music https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/the-fan-club/id1116272895