By Matt Marshall
“With My Garden, an album of songs for large ensemble with poetry by Charles Bukowski, composer/conductor Nicholas Urie continues his exploration into modern-day isolation and disconnect begun on 2009′s Excerpts From an Online Dating Service (Red Piano Records). On Excerpts, Urie invited the listener to hear (“imagine” might be more fitting) a certain poetry in the missives he lifted from actual online dating sites. Fit into Urie’s jumping or eerily longing scores and sung with complete conviction by Christine Correa, the dating posts do offer unexpected jolts of crude lyricism–the supplicant’s plea rushing out into a cyberspace of desperately comic emptiness.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that Urie would turn to Bukowski–the skid-row poet of fated desperation, failure and trying–for his follow-up record. Culled mostly from collections published after Bukowski’s death, the songs here trace a similar, yet more expertly crafted path than that heard on Excerpts. Inherent in that project was the technology that enabled it–a thrillingly advanced social network that too often pushes a user toward isolation. And that sense of imprisoning technology carries over into My Garden, which opens with “Winter: 44th Year,” a suicide note in the making, intoned in overlapping cycles by Urie’s father, Walter, pianist Frank Carlberg and bassist John Hébert. The readings are part of the music, not out front, and are almost swallowed by the bass-heavy strains. The man is trying to reach the one woman who can help him–who can pull him back from the edge–but his message is directed into the dead end of a phone service.
Correa handles the singing from here on out. As on Excerpts, her frank, straightforward manner lends a detachment to the poems, but induces fewer laughs here; instead, opening disturbing, stretching gaps of dread. While the voice and visage of Bukowski will, no doubt, float before many a listener, Correa sings few lines that seem necessarily a man’s (a common occurrence on Excerpts that supplied a good portion of that album’s quirky humor). Yet Carlberg, tenor saxophonist Kenny Pexton, trumpeter John Carlson and others are again afforded ample solo space, and commune wonderfully, forlornly, desperately with Correa’s singing and Bukowski’s poetry. “Round and Round” offers especially poignant contrapuntal statements from Carlberg, on an inspired, but eerily aseptic Rhodes, followed later by Pexton on the earthier, more human tenor sax; “You have my soul and I have your money,” Correa repeatedly implores, meanwhile.
The swirling, mad, repetitious incantations of anxiety and longing that cut across the record may seem a bit much to endure. But Urie and his band also supply a good deal of punch and funk, most notably on “Round and Round,” “Lioness” and “Lean,” that keep matters moving. And while the narrative ends by dragging a mad Ezra Pound through the streets of Italy in a crate, the poet (Bukowski too?) realizing that all he has written is ultimately “worth nothing,” Urie attacks this modern, losing arc with increased surety and insight. It’s an attack helped by Bukowski’s poetry, to be sure. But Urie succeeds wonderfully in transferring the grime of skid row to the sheen of the concert hall without sacrificing any of the poet’s bite and desperate humanity.”