Chase Pagan | Bells & Whistles (Esperanza Plantation)

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cd_chase-pagan.jpgBells & Whistles is yet another piano-driven showcase for this Arkansas man with a unique falsetto-like vice (not to be confused with his actual falsetto) and quick wit.







I've always regretted that we never reviewed Chase Pagan's debut full-length, Oh Musica! I so very rarely assign things, but this one I did ask the reviewer to review. Despite his promises to do so, he never did. I've listened to it countless times since then, each time lamenting our lack of ink.

So with Pagan's follow-up, Bells & Whistles, I vowed to give the operatic indie singer-songwriter his due. At first, I wasn't sure what to say; it didn't seem to quite live up to its predecessor. But the more I listen, the more I realize my first impression was wrong. Bells & Whistles is yet another piano-driven showcase for this Arkansas man with a unique falsetto-like vice (not to be confused with his actual falsetto) and quick wit.

Disc opener "The Lonely Life" has a bit more rock to it than the rest of the album. Up next, "Life Garden" is more representative of Pagan's standard M.O.: imagine the Dresden Dolls slowed down a bit, yet with a gentle, somewhat high-pitched male voice. Threepenny Opera comparisons would not be far off base here; with carefully plucked keys backed by horns and your standard rock band, there's a captivating circus feel to the song.

"Gun and the Sword" is piano- and drum-heavy; a carefully plucked guitar and backing horns introduce "Summer Comes," on which Pagan stretches his voice, relaying, "Oh summer comes, and summer goes.../ summer leaves me nowhere but in the cold." He follows the stanza with a near-yell then simple "da-da"s delivered via falsetto. "John & Betty," a live favorite, is a simple, ragtime-influenced tale of a prostitute, complete with an old-fashioned female voice delivering Betty's lines.

Pagan takes it down a notch with "Bring Down the Day," a track in which his lines are often delivered via near-whisper. "Don't Be Gay" could be one of those sitting-around-the-fire for its subject matter: "All right son, let's have a talk/ man to man, you should like women/ just like your mother." "Nameless" and "Better Off" are softly smoldering; Heading into the closing trifecta, Pagan takes it up a notch with the upbeat indie rocker "Just Fine." There's a bit of '60s psychedelia to "Search," and closing track "Train-a-Coming" is a gentle bedtime story, a fitting conclusion for the album.

Bells & Whistles finds Pagan pushing the boundaries of his songwriting style. It's as if he's dipped a paintbrush into the ink of his talent, then painted a broad swath with which to find his range. His unique voice and delivery may be a bit of an acquired taste, thereby reducing his audience. It's also not something you'd put on as an upbeat accompaniment; you have to be prepared for the hills and valleys, to say nothing of Pagan's skill in dipping into a variety of sound pools. But if you're up to the challenge of an operatic indie crooner, this one just may grow on you. B+ | Laura Hamlett

RIYL: Rufus Wainright, mellower Sunny Day Real Estate, glam-era David Bowie

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