By Steve Wilson
First, let me provide some personal notes. Oh, don’t worry; they set up our discussion of Day of the Dog, the tremendous new album from Ezra Furman very nicely.
I write about music for spare change and kicks. My ear is generally to the ground when it comes to new artists and music. Yet somehow I managed to miss out on Ezra Furman altogether until about two months ago.
Furman’s previous band the Harpoons reputedly has four albums to their name. Missed them. Furman’s first solo album? Missed it.
I guess it speaks to the sheer volume of music being disseminated in the digital age. Heck, I was approached about covering Day of the Dog, Furman’s new album several months ago, and just didn’t get around to it. Ezra Furman, huh? Sounds like some singer-songwriter. Later.
Finally, something compelled me to ask Furman’s publicity firm for a re-service of his music. And I listened.
And this guy is good, really, really good.
Granted, it’s a busy life. I don’t know how soon I’ll get around to hearing the man’s earlier releases, but I’ll be playing Day of the Dog plenty. It’s the kind of recording that wears its influences on its sleeve – chockablock with them, a veritable trope fest. Yet it’s at once guileless and knowing, a regurgitation of classic rock themes and memes that somehow emerges as individual and even revelatory.
An alumnus of Tufts University in Boston, Furman has bounced around between Boston, Oakland and now Chicago. In an era of self-involved navel contemplation passing as underground or alternative, however, Furman seems to come by his existential ire honestly. He’s focused on the human condition, not just his, but he reflects on it through self-examination and the unfolding of characters in song. And his basic message is that the little guy is fucked. Wait now, he doesn’t tell you this in broadside or polemic; instead he spins stories from the street and the heart that draw you in and personalize these issues.
When Furman sings “I wanna destroy myself” in the song of the same name he does so at the conclusion of a laundry list of things he’d just as soon dispense with – until ‘myself’ sounds more like the culmination of rage rather than intent to do self-harm. With its strangled, shades of Gordon Gano vocal, scorching guitar, piano, sax, bass and drums, “Destroy” is big canvas minimalism. As sprawling as the raging sentiment and detailed as a pointillist painting, right down to the cathartic quality of the free jazz sax break, a dash of Art Ensemble of Chicago in the midst of a romping Bo Diddley beat.
The Dave Clark Five’s “Over and Over” meets T.Rex stomp in “Tell’em All to Go to Hell.” Another breathless enumeration, this time of hell bound adversaries (bad guys in the class war, e.g.), Furman punctuates his sermon with shouts of “Good God,” somewhere between James Brown and Ike Reilly (who Furman does remind me of) and Marc Bolan panting. Alienation persists on the title track. Furman laments “I came up with a pain in my back, and I never could run with the wolves in the pack,” in defiance and admission. With its John Lennon “Mother” plodding piano, breaking into a Zeppelin stomp, “Day of the Dog” unfolds as a “Tom Thumb’s Blues” for a new generation; while “Anything Can Happen” is a new century “Drive in Saturday,” an evocation of Aladdin Sane vintage Bowie, Elliott Murphy and vintage Springsteen. The same influences pervade “Been So Strange,” Furman asserting “Someday I’m gonna meet my God” as guitar and sax blow unison over a twisted twelve-bar blues.
The desolation can get thick. Bo Diddley bounce returns for “At the Bottom of the Ocean,” as Furman fires off consumer solutions for despair as renunciation (“I want to buy a seahorse with a human face.”). The Captain Beefheart styed guitar break (Furman is a versatile, explosive guitarist, by the way) sends us into that metaphorical ocean, as refuge, and as end. “The Mall,” a cover of a song by Paul Baribeau, rolls from the mall to the shore, where the singer is “broken wide open, bleeding everywhere.”
Mind you, this despair and anguish is delivered, like all great rock ‘n’ roll, with transcendent, affirming abandon that both reinforces and undercuts the lyrics – dramatically so on “Slacker Adria.” Here, “Gloria” meets every acidic, Nuggets-guitar break. Furman losing “faith in my government, gonna watch TV in my apartment.” Well, sure. And as with so many of these songs, there’s a lot happening; heavy metal coda, Neil Young’s “Southern Man” evocations, raging ending, screw loose guitar … ah, the sufferings of young E.
But Lord knows, there are passages of respite. “Walk on in Darkness” has a cowboy-punk-polka quality and a gospel chorus, honking saxophone (lovely tenor solo), and encourages y’all to do just that … walk on in darkness. A song like “My Zero” may be a devastated love song, but it’s pretty. The freedom, the play in these arrangements is wonderful; Furman’s band, the Boy-Friends, is empathic and fully in service to these songs. “Zero’s” weird combo of Flo and Eddie backing vocals against World Saxophone Quartet energy is typical of the eclectic, rangy quality of these performances.
“Cherry Lane” is an epic closer. And I don’t use that word often. With the widescreen sensibility of a young Springsteen, the rock devotional quality of Lou Reed, and an intangible twist of Van Morrison, Furman gives us a human parade, a mythic vision of another, interior world within the temple of his familiar – “when somewhere you can’t come back from, (is) somewhere you can’t stay.” Echoes of “Sweet Jane,” hints of “When the Healing Has Begun” – ‘Cherry Lane’ is home and no home at all, and Furman, a stranger in this wonderful and weary world, is searching in his mangy, wordless ecstasy and sorrow as the song trails away.
Ezra Furman and his band walked into Studio Ballistico in Chicago (in two separate stints, July 2012 and January 2013) and cut an album that will change their lives. And maybe the lives of some listeners. It’s why songwriters and musicians do this stuff. That, and to hang out with buddies and get laid, but you know what I mean! Invaluable in their quest was one Tim Sandusky, who recorded these tracks and supplied the terrific saxophone work. Sandusky covers a lot of ground, from King Curtis and Clarence Clemons to Albert Ayler and Oliver Lake, and his contributions to these songs are critical.
Ezra Furman could have trailed away from my musical universe if something hadn’t inspired me to, at last, give him a listen. As an artist myself, who has had his own ups and downs getting through to gatekeepers, I know how important it is to catch the right sympathetic ears. Look, I’m not saying Mr. Furman is catching any Jon Landau-sized break from this writer. But if every little bit helps, I’m happy to spread the word.
Whether he occupies some Van Morrison or Lou Reed place in my future musical world, or if he just becomes another Elliott Murphy figure, even Willie Alexander, let’s say … how great to have all those people, all those songs. So consider me grateful for Ezra Furman. He’s a punk, and a poet, and he has big rock ‘n’ roll heart.
Day of the Dog is released by Bar None Records