Perhaps in 50 years or so, when yet another gaggle of music journalists and critics has compiled their list of America’s greatest songwriters, Darren Richard will finally get his due. As the arguable frontman of the Chicago-based Pinetop Seven, Richard has penned several releases’ worth of evocative music that blends elegant chamber pop, stompin’ jazz, rock n’ roll, Americana, and wistful country/western sounds. Sadly, most of his work has probably gone under the radar, as folks focus more on the Okkervil Rivers, Califones, and M. Wards of the world.
Despite being based in Chicago, Pinetop Seven’s music seems to gaze longingly somewhere off to the west, or rather, the West — the romanticized, mythologized stomping grounds of the restless and the lonely. Where damaged souls and broken individuals wander off to gain a new start amidst dusty desert roads and abandoned, barely-standing farmhouses only to find that their wounds and demons are not so easily healed or shaken.
The Night’s Bloom is the group’s latest long-player — that is, if you don’t count 2006’s collection of oddities and outtakes, Beneath Confederate Lake — and it’s a vital collection of everything that’s beautiful and evocative of the group’s spooky, forlorn music. As hinted at by the somewhat ominous title, there is darkness and sin and death and regret at work throughout the 13 tracks — and Richard mines it for many a rich storytelling gem.
However, what is perhaps the music’s ultimate saving grace is that Richard isn’t at all interested in being dark and foreboding just for the heck of it. That is to say, you won’t find much gallows’ humor at work here, nor any perverse tales of sinning, nor any celebrations of debauchery. No, Richard’s music is ultimately compassionate and humane, and when the final twist comes and a song’s characters are left in dire straits, he does so with a heavy sigh — even if they had it coming.
This is most noticeable on the album’s finest track, the epic 7‑minute “A Page From The Desert”. A haunting whistle drifts high overhead as Richard sings to us of our hero in his dry, bare voice: “He was not handsome, and not very strong/With no prospects to keep a girl for long”. And as the instruments gently swell and combine in all manner of lovely ways, especially Nate Walcott’s trumpet and flugelhorn, our hero grows even more pitiable before our eyes as he implores “I know I’m no good, I know I’m not loved/But I’d just like to show you what I’m capable of”.
It eventually becomes a classic tale of heartache — not that we’re surprised — though it seems as if things might pick up. When a woman arrives on the scene, it seems plausible that the two of them may go sauntering off into the sunset, given the country/western lilt of Pinetop Seven’s music and such lyrics as “Such pretty blue eyes, can I take your hand?/We’ll walk down this street, run our feet in the sand/I know I’m no good, I know I’m not loved/But I’d just like to show you what I’m capable of.”
Alas, such is not the case. For brief moment, all seems bright and hopeful (“And when he finally made her smile/The sun opened up for miles”) and then Richard twists the knife with a single line — “Then she laughed, and how black she laughed”.
This sort of economy pervades The Night’s Bloom and the album is ultimately the stronger for it. Richard’s lyrics are certainly haunting and evocative, but they’re never florid or overly poetic. Rather, he provides a skeletal amount of details, which allows both the listener’s imagination and the ornate-yet-rustic music to fill in any necessary details, to enhance and add to the song’s tone where needed.
Whether it’s “Easy Company”, where a villain defends his lurid and evil ways, or “Witness”, where a man plots revenge only to have his target die before his plans come to fruition, or “Made A Whisper Out Of Me”, which chronicles the dissolution of a marriage after the death of a child, Richard’s lyrics are always sparse and stark — as if respecting his characters’ turmoil and plight too much to divulge too many details.
In the case of “A Page From The Desert”, that starkness only adds to the psychic damage that occurs in the last stanza: “He left her in ruins/She was never to love/And he certainly showed her what he’s capable of”. Again, the lack of details only adds to the impact, and the echoing and twisting of what was earlier a plea from a lonely man bookends the song in a manner that is both haunting and saddening, chilling and desperate.
The fact that this result is accomplished so easily, with such economy as well as emotion, is yet another testament to Richard’s skill as songwriter and arranger.