Ray's Vast Basement: Starvation Under Orange Trees

By: Sarah Moore

Created as the soundtrack for a San Francisco theatre production of John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Ray's Vast Basement's Starvation Under Orange Trees (Howells Transmitter) is a good model of a concept album. Moving along the lines of Bill Callahan, it has a chamber folk feel with bells and chimes on "Annalisa" and the outdoor orchestral tuning of opener "Salinas River Theme." "California's Gone" has the energy and intensity of a twinkling M. Ward, aligning the breathy, layered vocals (courtesy of John Bernson, the backbone and main player of the unit who wrote, recorded and mixed all songs) with a shoveling, trotting rhythm.

Their name refers to a whole slew of stories on previous albums about the character Ray McKelvey, who lives in a fictitious Northern California town known as Drakesville. The idea only gets more complicated from there. Throughout, the band incorporates an array of instruments. Mandolin, rake, dobro, washboard, saw and saxophone sit alongside bottles, field recordings, handclaps and whistling. Guests include The Decemberists' Nate Query but don't let the tremendous session musician list deter you. The album is far from overwhelming or pretentious. Check out "Black Cotton," which moves from simple acoustic singer-songwriter to trumpet-propelled marching rhythms as it progresses. Unobtrusive and varied, Orange Trees is a stellar album.

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[Published on: 1/6/08]

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