It might seem petty to highlight the producer of a record in the headline of a review of said record but, really, it is significant that the former guitar whiz of Suede has hooked up with American indie legend Mark Eitzel for Mark's new album, Hey Mr. Ferryman. The album, which drops on Merge Records on Friday, is the sort of thing that will please fans of both of these gentleman and that's saying something.
By handling loads of the guitar, bass, percussion, and keyboards on this record, Bernard Butler is fulfilling the role of someone like Nelson Riddle or Gordon Jenkins to Eitzel's place as a sort of Sinatra for the post-grunge world. That Butler has brought along drummer Mako Sakamoto from Suede spin-off The Tears ought to tell you what a big hand the producer had in making Hey Mr. Ferryman such a fine record.
Still, this is, after all, a Mark Eitzel record and his rich voice and soul-scraping tunes are the things that fans of this guy crave. That the material is so rich, so lush, and so memorable is a testament to the strengths of the man as a songwriter, performer, and artist. The most apt description for this record is that Eitzel has made the equivalent here of The Boatman's Call (1997). That said, there's something a good deal lighter here than what Mr. Cave offered up on his similarly-titled record.
Opener "The Last Ten Years" kicks things off with a simply gorgeous melody, while the Jimmy Webb-influenced "An Answer" similarly benefits from the rich production Mr. Butler has brought to this album. If "Nothing and Everything" harks back to the sort of singer-songwriter tradition that Gordon Lightfoot and Cat Stevens pioneered, the bright and airy "An Angel's Wing Brushed the Penny Slots" rides by on a faint bossa nova beat, Eitzel's voice so clear and distinct over top. It's a splendid bit of business and one of those very rare things that is a miracle of both composition and performance, Butler's hand at the producer's deck a big help too. If "Mr. Humphries" carries a trace of Scott Walker about it, "La Lloma" has something harder about it, something darker too like those cuts on post-Violator Depeche Mode records only without so much electronic business slathered on top. It's worth highlighting that this number contains a fiery guitar solo and it's a joy to hear Bernard Butler cut loose on the axe again.
In his very best moments on Hey Mr. Ferryman, Mark Eitzel here shows that he is a master of both jazzy material ("Just Because") as well as more lush numbers ("Let Me Go"). And what remains remarkable about this record as a listening experience is how wonderfully whole this whole thing sounds, even as individual cuts take subtle chances and risks. Bernard Butler has helped Mark Eitzel make perhaps his most organic record yet and found a way to perfectly convey the whole range of the singer's performance style. Hey Mr. Ferryman is the type of record that demands your full attention. It is that very rare record that demands to be listened to all the way through in one sitting and not parsed out on your iPod. Intimate, brave, and heartfelt, this is the return of un-ironic music of the very highest order. And it's easy for me to declare that Hey Mr. Ferryman might just be the first big album of 2017.
[Photo: Mark Holthusen]