Man, I could listen all day, and all tomorrow too, to the way the great Tony Levin manipulates bass note length to create motion and microbursts of groove energy, propelling vocal lines and lending them an authority and conviction that you are apt to think is all coming from the singer. One of the most recorded bassists in history (he, Will Lee, Carol Kaye, Ron Carter and Lee Sklar might have to wrestle it out), Levin performs this kind of underground magic and song elevation unconsciously. To him, it’s just playin’.
It may be myopic and even a tad dysfunctional to begin a record review with a rhapsody about its bass parts, but here we are. The nitty gritty internal action and rubbery grace of the rhythm section are major reasons why this is such a good record. And that rhythm section is none other than St. Tony and his longtime battery mate in Peter Gabriel’s great band Jerry Marrotta, recording at Marrotta’s own Dreamland studio outside of Woodstock, where both have lived for centuries.
On For the Record, his first release in nearly two decades, the guitarist/songwriter, writer/journalist, and Woodstock historian Tad Wise presents a fully realized set of nine substantive, lyrically elaborative tunes, topical art songs disguised as sleek soul pop with an anchor in the sounds and dialects of ‘80s rock — the shimmery guitar, the super crisp and tight rhythm section. An elegant electric guitarist with a command of idiomatic harmony, texture and guitar arrangement, Wise did well to recruit these supra-A-list sidemen (as, I suppose, would we all), and also did well not to festoon too much else on top of this lithe and crisp trio sound — a harmonica here, a keyboard there, some vocal beds and not much else.
For all its considerable musical sophistication, For the Record is arguably a lyrics-first, message-first record. Wise’s long verbal phrases drive the arty irregularities in metrics and feel, Levin and Marrotta masterfully hugging these winding roads as if they were scoring a libretto in the angular opener “The Wrong Heroes.” Wise can write strictly metrical verse when he wants, and big choruses too, but is often given to Dylanesque line-stuffing, squeezing as much prose as possible into a four-bar sequence, pulling it out just in time to keep things tidy, to keep things song.
That grammatical device, a form of Biblical and Beat breath prosody as much Ginsberg as Zimmerman, befits the lyrical motive of these songs: moralistic, topical, oracular and spiritual. Yeah, it’s didactic at times, too, but in ways sharp, urgent and witty, and plus you deserve it. I notice a subtle affinity between Wise and Peter Gabriel that extends beyond choice of players. Both are intentional, purpose-driven lyricists with virtually nothing in the way of impressionistic smear and language for language’s sake, though Wise is by nature more playful than the ever-serious PG, who sounds grave and stentorian even when making sex jokes.
For the Record is all about this historical moment, though it avoids the explicit and topical newsiness of, say, John Lennon’s Sometime in New York City or in all the recent work of Wise’s village-mate Tom Pacheco. In Wise’s songs, the current point of reference is barely concealed, no more than one inference under the surface. For example, on “Maybe We Needed Him,” Wise searches scripture and history to find a reason to consider an unnamed Donald Trump a good thing, a necessary mobilizer of the righteous. I’m thankful that Tad used the word “Maybe.”
Offsetting the record’s oracular rhetoric and urgent groove tunes are a variety of truly beautiful ballads and mid-tempo numbers. “Hidin’ Out at the Lake” provides one of the record’s prettiest melodies as it finds gratitude in age, and in Covid-enforced isolation. “All In (But Only Then)” is another elegant winner, a mostly drumless narrative song about art and timing (and perhaps Wise’s cheeky rationale for the many years that have elapsed between records). The exquisite love song “Lili” evokes the complex pattern study of Marrotta’s best work with PG. Levin pulls out his expert cello for the beautiful album closing “Goodbye, John” in which Wise references Gabriel Garcia Marquez in an elegy for John Prine.
Pro tip: on For the Record’s Bandcamp page (link below) Wise richly annotates each song with session narratives, anecdotes, and some harmless self-explication. These notes are on the individual song pages, not the album main page, and they’re recommended, a nice verbal adjunct to a record that really is a terrific, monumental achievement by a local eminence.
Listen, and learn, and support, at https://tadwise.bandcamp.com/