There's an almost incomprehensible sweep in the desert landscape that awestruck newcomers often interpret with the word "majesty." To natives, it's often just "home," but it seems rare that anyone besides a native can locate that desert place of mind where the routine of seeing as much of the planet as mortal eyes permit, in every direction, can deflate the viewer, and everything he holds dear, to profound insignificance. The only defense, it seems, is to turn inward and craft the smallest details of common human experience into icons of hope and endurance.
Pinetop Seven's Darren Richard, a Chicagoan, has just that rare gift of insight, seldom captured in music by anyone but Tucson's Calexico. The opening instrumental bars of Bringing Home the Last Great Strike are a lo-fi, 21st-century take on the "Dawn" segment of the majestic Grand Canyon Suite. It opens with cello and clarinet, swelling to include banjo, melodica and glockenspiel and culminating with a muted trumpet. But this fleeting front-porch symphony opens into 12 tracks of ghost-town acoustic pop, with musical phrases ambling as unpredictably as tumbleweed. Richard makes a point not to take a tune where you'd expect; few of his songs are hummable, although many of their hooks hang in the memory like the smell of creosote after a rain.
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"Cinematic" is the term most often used to describe Pinetop Seven music, and that it is, albeit on an intimate scale. Richard's lyrics are more like indie-film character studies. Fellow Chicagoan and country-punk Robbie Fulks has aptly termed his work "writerly." In "A Black Eye to Be Proud Of," for instance, Richard sings of having "left my place where the women's laughter floats/In from secret knowing throats/To worry men with nervous eyes." "And the Dog Longed to Be a Horse" offers this: "His eyes looked out/Through the little crack/Worked in a wall/How bright the sky . . ."
Richard's voice can be an acquired taste, with a timbre similar to Son Volt's Jay Farrar, but his range is broader, and that untrained sound is a good match for the music. That's particularly true in this, Pinetop Seven's third full-length CD and the first without founding partner Charles Kim. Kim brought a canny wit to the music, which is absent here, but, surprisingly, not missed. Bringing Home the Last Great Strike yields entirely to Richard's aesthetic, which is unrelentingly beautiful if entirely unglamorous, and occasionally witheringly dark.
Richard and Kim made their first two records in an attic over their then-shared apartment, playing nearly all the instruments and effects themselves. The pair often referred to the attic as a band member, incorporating its unique sonics into the overall presentation.
These days Kim is devoting more time to a law career, and to a more improvisational project called Sinister Luck Club. For Great Strike, Richard returned to the attic and invited Chicago indie-rock stalwart Ryan Hembry to join him. Eventually, half a dozen other musicians stopped by, playing everything from violin and flügelhorn to clarinet and accordion. Richard himself added skillet, parade drums and Keen-O-Tone, among other things. But despite the number of guests, Bringing Home the Last Great Strike is clearly the product of one man's vision -- as far as his eyes can see.