Uzi & Ari: Headworms
Own Records

Though Uzi & Ari performs as a full band in concert, on record it's decidedly Ben Shepard's show, even if he is helped out by an assortment of musicians on the forty-minute Headworms. It's easy to understand that a full complement of musicians would be needed to re-create the ten rich tapestries comprising the album. The album's distinguished by two things in particular: Shepard's thoroughly engaging songwriting and a baroque sonic smorgasbord where French horn, mandolin, violin, autoharp, and accordion enrich the expected keyboards, bass, guitars, and drums. When a given song isn't momentarily stilled by an introspective piano passage, it's galloping to places unknown, driven by syncopated rhythms that give the songs a frenetic urgency and zest, and more often than not songs build dramatically until they explode in jubilant climaxes.

The template is established immediately in “ Missoula ” with its nervous rhythms, autoharp strums, and glockenspiel tinkles. The material thereafter veers between the breezy acoustic jaunt “Thumbsucker” and the rock'n'rolling “Magpie's Monologue” and Shepard even finds room for a tranquil interlude or two (“Hold Your Horses”). The title song in particular is a standout, a dramatic piano ballad where Shepard's voice soars and that's sonically sweetened by strings and glockenspiel. As the closer “Paper Cuts” shows, even when the volume level is turned down low, there's still the urgency, this time in the form of an incessant tinkle that resounds behind Shepard's restrained vocal until a swinging horn-filled coda takes charge.

If there's one influence that's hard to ignore, it's Radiohead. On a number of songs (e.g., “Ghosts On The Windowsill”), Shepard's singing voice could pass for a slightly more polished Thom Yorke (with perhaps a dash of Rufus Wainwright thrown in too) and the jittery opener “Missoula” doesn't sound radically unlike Radiohead either, especially when the rhythm section marches with such fervent intensity alongside Shepard's vocals. That such an influence is audible doesn't negate the multiple listening pleasures Headworms offers.

October 2008