In an effort to track down signs of life from Carlos Forster, lead singer for the underappreciated Bay Area indie band For Stars, I stumbled onto what would quickly become one of my favorite albums of the year so far, Pocket Shelley's Small Illuminations in a Darkening Sky, which features guest turns by Forster and Marc Cappelle, as well as production by and musical contributions from American Music Club member Tim Mooney.
Details like this virtually assured I would like the album, but my expectations were exceeded. Pockey Shelley is the singer-songwriter vehichle for Bay Area musician Michael Mullen, of the bands Glasstown, Roman Evening and the Size Queens. Putting vocals, piano and acoustic guitar front and center, Mullen has put together a stunning album of romantic but grounded songs, generous, open-hearted stories of everyday longing, regret and joy that fans of American Music Club and Mark Eitzel shouldn't miss.
As with Eitzel's songbook, details of California abound, particularly in the track I've posted here, "Half Moon Bay", which begins tentatively and tenderly, "Happy birthday, baby/I'll take you out to dinner/let's go to Firefly/that's up in Noe Valley" and tumbles through a series of wishes and memories that teases the listener, never really letting on as to what's real andwhat's imagined, making it all the more relatable. Mullen's ability to fuse the grand and everyday is crucial to making these songs work, as in another romantic track, "Mirror Lake", where he sings of love "in city and in country/and by the oceanside/and sometimes in your twin-size bed".
Musically, these songs move between spare, room-noise piano/vocal arrangements and squalling sadcore psychadelia, as when Cappelle's flugelhorn wails in a long coda to "New Year's Day", and in the swelling build of "Acid Orange", a nearly nine-minute celebration of natural and chemical highs that reminds me of longer tracks on Red House Painters' eponymous Rollercoaster album like "Strawberry Hill" in sheer transporting power.
In addition to ten originals, the album features a fine cover of Dylan's "Farewell Angelina" and Tony Kushner's "Duets: 'Night Mamma", from the musical Caroline, or Change.
You can buy the album at CD Baby and listen to more tracks at Pocket Shelley's MySpace.
MP3: Pocket Shelley - Half Moon Bay