April 30, 2017

TEST SPIN: Kurt Riley — Tabula Rasa

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Kurt Riley ’16 is, first and foremost, an optimist. Riley’s imaginative blend of rock, blues and theatricality always gazes forward, hoping for a more enthusiastic and less cynical future. While Riley took on the persona of an alien king to critique humanity from the outside on his 2016 release Kismet, Riley and his band have come back to earth on 2017’s Tabula Rasa.

With his distinctive style of “21st century rock,” Riley turns to problems that have been all too pertinent throughout the past few years: a sense of helplessness in a massive political system, a news cycle filled with depressing stories and growing malaise. Yet, Tabula Rasa, with all of its forward-looking anthems, begins on a decidedly somber note.

Over an earworm of a guitar riff, Riley bemoans, “Nothing I can say, nothing I can do, same as the day before/and I don’t know if I can make it anymore.” The track crescendos at the chorus as Riley makes the cry that underscores much of Tabula Rasa: “I don’t need a million/Just a life worth living for.” Good news (and people’s desperate desire for it) appears as a theme throughout the album.

“Screwing up the World,” the album’s second track, feels far more like a call to arms than a pained lament: “I don’t want to hear about it/I’m tired of the news.” In the second verse, Riley sings, “The television told me fables/of Cadillacs and girls.” Just as Kismet fixated on sci-fi technology to critique society, Tabula Rasa turns to the spectacle and ennui of current technology, evidenced in trends like the 24-hour news cycles and slacktivism.

Tabula Rasa’s one fault, however, is the fact that some of Riley’s societal critiques are stated in strokes far too broad to really hit home. In “Century,” for example, Riley laments  that a “precious little snowflake is exploring her identity/while her sister in the Middle East/gets stoned ‘cause she wants to be free.” The line seems jarringly combative in a song that is otherwise focused on bringing back productive conversation in an atmosphere of extreme political division.

But Kurt Riley’s music is more often focused on joy and memory, and Riley and his band — guitarist Sam Packer, bassist Rick Kline, keyboardist Rob Romano and drummer Olivia Dawd — consistently knock it out of the park with action-packed arrangements and pristine technical chops. Riley and his band faithfully emulate the camp, glitz and grunge of artists like David Bowie (may he rest in peace) and T. Rex. Tabula Rasa’s most full-hearted and exuberant tracks, namely “All Night Long” and “Human 101,” evidence a safe return to Earth for Riley, one that finds him once again reviving the sounds and grooves of past decades.

While Riley’s most recent album Kismet was, and sounded like, a largely DIY project (much of the album was recorded in Cornell’s Lincoln Hall studios), Tabula Rasa has a noticeable, and welcome, step up in production quality. Riley and his band worked with producer Alex Caminiti at his Ithaca-based Studio Zoot to craft a warm, visceral sound oni. While the DIY sound of Kismet matched the camp and sci-fi dreaminess of the album’s story, Tabula Rasa’s songs greatly benefit from Caminiti’s touch. The artful production makes itself in the details: the reverberant phaser on the guitars in “Century,” the theatrical, humorous “tick tock/tick tock” in the background of “Do It Again.”

Yet, despite the talent of Riley’s full band, I can’t help but be drawn to the moments when the arrangements are sparse. “Shadow,” a track that is both at the album’s center and feels like the emotional heart of the Tabula Rasa, almost seems to harken back to another excellent creation steeped in rock history: John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. “Some things,” Riley sings, “some things should last forever.” As a track, it’s graceful and delicate, a critical counterbalance to the all-engines-go grooves that fill out Tabula Rasa.

Musically, Tabula Rasa has two sides to its story. On one hand, the album is polished, distilled and perfectly arranged. The sleek, tight rock ‘n’ roll that Riley was seeking to create on Kismet is actualized in Tabula Rasa. On the other hand, with Riley’s laser focus on emulating past artists whom he admires, there is a limit to how innovative Tabula Rasa feels. The album certainly sounds like an improved and excellently written permutation on Kismet, but it still feels like a variation on the same material all the same.

For an artist who is focused on channeling long-standing American musical traditions, the title Tabula Rasa (Latin for “blank slate”) is a curious choice. For Riley, expression is firmly tied to nostalgia and memory; Tabula Rasa certainly does not seem like it came from an artistic blank slate. But perhaps the album’s title is not an assertion but rather a hope, a wish for a future that is more understanding, more joyful, more passionate. If that’s the case, then Riley and his band are undoubtedly already doing their part to bring it to fruition.

Shay Collins is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].