Boston-based band Beat Circus first got together in 2002, and in 2005 leader Brian Carpenter (the only constant member over the life of the band) began working on his Weird American Gothic trilogy of albums, which explore the rich culture of three American mythologies: The American Circus, Southern Gothic literature, and the Old American West. Dreamland (Cuneiform Records, 2008) was the first, followed by Boy From Black Mountain (Cuneiform Records, 2009).
In 2012 Carpenter was commissioned by the Berkeley Repertory Theater to compose music for a new play based on the true crime book The Barbary Coast, chronicling San Francisco in the Gold Rush era. The group worked on the play, including a showcase in front of a live audience, but the play was never fully funded and staged.
Two years later they went into the studio to record mostly new music for the final part of the Weird American Gothic trilogy, including a few songs and instrumental pieces from the play. Getting to this third installment has been a long processit is the band's first new release in ten years. It is a big, kaleidoscopic sound world. In addition to vocals the eight members of the core band play guitars, piano, winds, brass, strings, bass and drums. Thirteen additional musicians provide strings, winds, brass, percussion, lap steel guitar, and vocals.
"Murieta's Last Ride" begins the set with a bit of an overture, snatches of other songs drifting in and out over a martial drum beat. The title tune is a song about a dark, fateful attraction: "You're always in my dreams when all these wicked things come true." "Bad Motel" conjures its bleak setting with a basic rock beat, tremolo guitar, and bass saxophone. "Rosita" (one of the songs from the play) makes its first appearance in instrumental form as a tango, but with a mariachi flavor. "All The Pretty Horses" is a brief instrumental interlude with composer credits to both Carpenter and the players: guitarist Andrew Stern, bassist Paul Dilley and drummer Gavin McCarthy.
"Rosita" returns as a vocal huapango (a Mexican folk dance and musical style), with an even stronger mariachi flavor. Memorable contributions from Carpenter as well as vocalist Tomas Cruz and mariachi trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela. "The Evening Redness in the West" is an especially eclectic entry, with Bill Cole's Chinese suona (a double-reed instrument) taking a bagpipe role and a free jazz blowout at the end. "The Last Man (Is Anybody Out There?)" has a yearning quality reinforced by Stephen Ulrich's lap steel guitar, while closer "Long Way Home" (a collaboration with guitarist Stern) finds Stern soloing mournfully over his guitar and a string group.
These Wicked Things is a masterpiece of atmosphere, evoking dark, strange corners of the American experience. The large group of players all contribute to Carpenter's vision, with very little focus on soloists. The music is also very well served by extensive booklet art from Croatian comic-book artist Danijel Žeželj, who is best known for work for the "mature readers" publisher Vertigo Comics. His dark, wood print-like style is a perfect match to the themes of the album, having the look of period art prints.
Murieta’s Last Ride; These Wicked Things; Bad Motel; Just a Lost, Lost Dream; Crow Killer; Gone, Gone, Gone; The Girl From the West Country; Rosita (tango); The Key; All the Pretty Horses; Rosita (huapango); Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came; The Evening Redness in the West; The Last Man (Is Anybody Out There?); Long Way Home.
Brian Carpenter: vocals, harmonica, piano, bells, trumpet, jawharp, turntables; Andrew Stern: guitar, baritone guitar, acoustic guitar; Alec Spiegelman: bass clarinet, tenor saxophone, flute, backing vocals; Abigale Reisman: violin, backing vocals; Emily Bookwalter: viola, backing vocals; Jordan Voelker: viola, backing vocals, saw; Paul Dilley: double bass, electric bass; Gavin McCarthy, drums; Paran Amirinazari: violin; Brad Balliett: bassoon (track 5); Catherine Bent: cello (5); Quinn Carson: trombone; Ron Caswell: tuba; Bill Cole: Chinese suona (13); Dana Colley: bass saxophone (2-3); Tomas Cruz: backing vocals, voice of Murieta (11); Gita Drummond: boy's voice (12); Adam Sachs: hand percussion; Jane Scarpantoni: cello; Stephen Ulrich: lap steel (14); Jacob Valenzuela: mariachi trumpet (11).
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