River City Extension – The Unmistakable Man
Record Label: XOXO Records
Release Date: May 11, 2010
“The winter is passing and I am its only companion / Shooting the liquor like bullets into my regrets,” moans “Waiting In the Airport.” I’m almost convinced that the recent revival of interest in alcohol-spilling folk tunes is a product of the miserable economy, but on The Unmistakable Man, River City Extension sing about all the timeless things: religion, love and death, with just as much forlornness. As Joe Michelini dons his Christopher-Nolan’s-Joker-sings-Bright-Eyes voice and the rest of the 8 member troupe take up everything from trumpets to cellos, the group faces intense pressure to produce something emotional, something witty - something good. And though the songs are ornamented with little riffs and trills that serve as ear candy, River City Extension fulfills expectations by simply shifting their focus to what they do best: musing about life. The result is sensational.
“Friends and Family” cracks things open with an ominous “Sometimes I wonder where I’d be / if all my friends abandoned me / On a vessel out to sea,” and it’s apparent that the album won’t be stuffed with happy-go-lucky optimism. True to its sour opening line, the musically upbeat number closes with Michelini rasping “Please forgive me, I want to go home! / Wake me up now, I’m so tired of being so lonely.” Around these parts, things are personal and angst-ridden, but in a manner that’s much more mid-life crisis than it is teenage hissy fit. “Adrianne” is a similar rocker about a forbidden love: “Everyone I meet these days likes to ask me what I do / And I was hoping recently / that the answer might be you.” And later, Michelini gets wasted on “Too Tired to Drink,” a psychotic song where the vocals border on delirium, the music gets frantic, and the quality of the lyrics are slurred beyond decency. A little crude, maybe, but the honesty is much appreciated.
More interesting are the thoughts on faith. The half-tempo, one man/one guitar sentiment of “If I Still Own A Bible” is the album’s first foray into religion, which is met with skepticism: “I wonder if I still own a Bible / If my fingerprints still sit on that page / The one about love, and why it’s so patient / And why I have lost it with age,” sings Michelini before firing his blanket statement, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned / Don’t put your trust in anyone or anything.” Backing “If I Still Own A Bible” is the brash “Holy Cross,” which seems to put God on notice amid a briskly-paced Arcade Fire sound: “Another death upon a mountain top / Our lives are nothing but some real shit luck / Remember when we used to give a fuck? / Well I don’t think the Lord understands.” There’s no redemption song, though the closer asks God for help to overcome the past, and the liner notes make a point to thank the Man Upstairs. A story for another time, perhaps.
“Today, I Feel Like I’m Evolving” is harrowingly poignant when it finds Michelini dreaming “that I had cancer / Just so I knew how it felt… Well I lost a friend of mine / Out in Arizona quite some time ago” over a landscape of cellos and horns. It’s the meeting point for all the album’s major themes - a lamentation for deceased friends, a realization of the need to treasure loved ones, and a recognition of the futility of a life lived without faith. With it, The Unmistakable Man comes full circle, as if to acknowledge that tragedy humbles humanity. But it’s in tragedy that the best of River City Extension is forged. “Oh some peace and quiet may be what I need,” reads a line from “Our New Intelligence,” but we know very well that peace and quiet couldn't produce a gem like this.