Brian Carpenter chooses words carefully for revealing new album
CAMBRIDGE – Brian Carpenter is a slippery fellow. Since arriving here in 2000, he has been one of the Boston area’s most kaleidoscopic musicians, known for his work as a composer, arranger, and ringleader of disparate bands.
They’ve all been highly stylized ensembles that have put virtuosic spins on age-old art forms, from the carnival-esque revelry and improvisation of Beat Circus to Ghost Train Orchestra’s explorations of 1920s jazz from Chicago and Harlem. In each project, there has been a tradition to honor even as Carpenter blazes his own trail within it.
His latest, however, feels like his most revealing. Brian Carpenter & the Confessions pull back the curtain on Carpenter as a songwriter and vocalist. Recorded in 2011 but not released until this October, their new debut album is called “The Far End of the World.”
Befitting that title, the songs are brittle ruminations on separation and longing, on regret and redemption, on love and losing it. (Along with Ghost Train Orchestra’s new “Hot Town,” it’s the second album Carpenter has released this year. He and the band will perform selections from “The Far End of the World” at Great Scott on Wednesday, with opening sets from Thalia Zedek Band and the Wrong Shapes.)
“The big thing with this record and this band was to center it around the voice and the words, and to have no narratives,” Carpenter says recently at a Harvard Square cafe, not far from the Arlington home he shares with his wife and their young son. “In other words, you should be able to change the order of the verses and the songs still work.”
Carpenter calls them fragile. But the music surrounding them is evocative in the way it conjures a dusky mood that’s been described as desert noir. A high-lonesome sound snakes throughout the recordings, swathed in elegant string arrangements and female backing vocals. It’s Americana by way of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway.”
After recording with Rafi Sofer at Q Division in Somerville, Carpenter enlisted Craig Schumacher to mix the album. Schumacher is revered for his production work with Calexico, Tom Russell, DeVotchKa, and Neko Case (whose “Blacklisted” was an early sonic touchstone for Carpenter’s latest).
At Schumacher’s studio in Tucson, they mixed the songs so that Carpenter’s baritone, as arid as the Arizona desert, is up front. He relays these tales with the gravitas of an Old Testament prophet.
“They’re mostly low-tempo ballads. The voice is unadorned. And you have to be really confident about the words and the vocals,” he says. “That wasn’t an issue, but 10 years ago I wouldn’t have been confident enough to do that. But by the time we recorded this album, I had already found my voice.”
Carpenter was especially attuned to mood and imagery and to conveying a sense of place. It made perfect sense when he scouted Amboy, Calif., a dusty ghost town with a population in the single digits, as the location for the video for “Savior of Love.” (Amid its premise of carnal desire and forbidden passion, Carpenter makes a brief cameo with a harmonica solo.)
He was also careful not to overarrange the songs, giving them enough space to unfurl. That was a new challenge; his work with Beat Circus is often about maximal arrangement, with each song having a beginning, middle, and end. For the new album, though, “anything you don’t need, take it out” was the guiding principle.
“The key was to get something direct, and to render a particular experience so that it’s universal,” Carpenter says, adding that the album title felt like the perfect summation of its overall theme.
“It came out of a feeling of separation,” he says. “The songs are coming out of a personal experience, but I’m trying to do it in a way where it’s not so much about story, but more about imagery. I think these are non-narratives, but you could argue every song has a story.”
The Confessions are a six-piece ensemble of local players Carpenter put together. The current lineup, most of whom played on the album and will be performing at Great Scott, includes Jen Kenneally, Georgia Young, Andrew Stern, Gavin McCarthy, Tony Leva, and Jonathan LaMaster.
Carpenter gives particular credit to Stern, the guitarist who has worked with him for nearly nine years, first as part of Beat Circus. Stern, who introduced Carpenter to Schumacher’s production work, says Carpenter’s latest reveals another facet of his artistry.
“This new album is really a personal leap for him, and I think it’s pretty courageous,” Stern says. “It’s not easy to do that, but Brian has always been such an interesting guy. His mind is always moving at a fast clip, and he’s usually thinking of his next album when he’s in the middle of his current one. But I think we’re on to something good here.”
BRIAN CARPENTER & THE CONFESSIONS
With Thalia Zedek Band and the Wrong Shapes at Great Scott on Wednesday, 9 p.m. Tickets $10. 800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com