Tuesday, August 14, 2007

“No Boy Wonder”: A Review of Knight Berman Jr.’s I’m Batman

(PrestoMusiCo, 2004, www.marbletea.com)

In a letter to his niece, the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said: “The chief idea of the novel is to portray the positively good man. There is nothing in the world more difficult to do, and especially now.” Nearly 120 years later, the word “disc” (or record/album for us older, more nostalgic folks) could easily be inserted for “novel.” Now, granted, these are politically, socially, and morally complicated times, and I am a fan of the politically edged records recently released by the likes of Green Day and System of a Down, but I don’t believe for a second that plain-old good-time tunes on the positive tip, produced by a “positively good man” aren’t equally vital. Just the opposite—having fun and looking at things simply (and dare I say, with the eyes of a child) is incredibly important—especially now.

So it is with great joy and a lot of excitement that I present this review of Knight Berman Jr.’s five-song EP, I’m Batman, which runs a total of 15 minutes—just enough time to serenade a quick run to the grocery store or accompany the morning rituals that set the tone for the day. It is the kind of top-down, crank it up music that goes perfect with a lot of sunshine and positive prospects—or as a much needed retreat into the thoughts and memories of better times when the weather turns cold and the days ain’t so great. I was lucky enough to be making notes about Knight’s disc in a backyard full of sunshine and subtle breezes and I couldn’t think of anyplace more fitting in which to do so.

Before I get into my thoughts on the songs themselves, I’d like to talk a bit about the songwriter in question. Knight Berman, formally from Atlanta, Georgia, used to play with bands with catchy names like Blond Popsicle and Open Air Surgery before moving to the Jersey Shore and turning his attention to composing and recording what he calls “digital lo-fi,” which is very much the wave of the present as far as cutting edge and alternative home recording goes. Digital lo-fi consists of a guy (or gal), a guitar, some other electronic instruments, a computer for digital recording and sound effects, and, most importantly, a vision. Like Moby in his home studio, a talented musician like Knight can weave his considerable magic at a reasonable cost and with almost unlimited control. Knight has his final mixing and “tweaks” done by Jeff Booth at Squaresville, and then either uploads the songs onto his website, which I’ll get to in more detail, or packages them as EPs like I’m Batman.

The process is undertaken under the moniker The Marble Tea, a name inspired by a “long-forgotten [out of print] book by fringe Beat writer Richard Brautigan” called Lay the Marble Tea (which Brautigan took from Emily Dickinson’s poem “The Grave” )(Note: after listening to Knight’s EPs several times and being a more-than-casual fan of the core Beats, I recently purchased a collection of Brautigan’s books. In mentioning that to some other writers, they either love him or hate him—which means he must have been on to something cool).

So, about Knight’s website, which is as fun, varied, and refreshingly casual as his music. Just go to www.marbletea.com and you’ll find a plethora (that is to say, a veritable cornucopia) of treats—
songs of the month and other places to find his songs as well as some of his writings, photos, information on his previous musical projects, and lots of quality links. The website is also the place to download a free EP called Hoga-Rama, provided you first purchase I’m Batman—and I genuinely think you should. Not only has it received a number of excellent reviews (all accessible thru the website) and a nomination for one of the Top 90 Albums of 2004 at a Jersey shore radio station, but it was 2004 CD of the Year at http://independisc.com/.
Knight’s musical style invites a lot of comparisons from fans and reviewers (I make a few myself over the course of this review). He has been compared to Robin Hitchcock, The Kinks, XTC, the Barenaked Ladies, early Beck, and a happy Lou Reed, of all things. Pretty good company to say the least. As for Knight’s own assessment, he has referred to his music as “children’s songs for adults,” which is as good a description as any—Knight’s music certainly speaks to something in all of us that could fall under the psychobabble label of “the inner child,” but I like to think of it as more of the timeless innocence of the artist and visionary than any kind of silly kid-ishness (although that’s damn cool too—I used one of the songs off the EP, “Cricket,” in a workshop last summer with a group of 5 and 6 year olds and as we flapped our knuckled, scraped-elbow wings and moved around the space like insects, I thought—“Now this is fun as hell!!”). Three tunes by Knight, including a cover of the Newley/Bricusse classic Wonka tune “Pure Imagination,” have also been used in another project aimed at kids—the LittleWalks New York video/DVD (http://www.marbletea.com/littlewalks_ny.htm)—which is a “virtual stroller ride” through the city. According to his website, Knight is working on a children’s album, which I bet will be ever better than the decent Here Come the ABCs recently put out by They Might Be Giants.
Now a few words about each of the songs, although they truly do speak best for themselves.
The title song (reinforced by the CD cover photo of a very young Knight at the beach in a Batman headpiece) has an infectious, full sound; catchy, memorable lyrics; and well-constructed and executed backing vocals. When he sings “I may seem timid and I may seem shy/but late at night I’m a super guy” I can’t help but think—Aren’t we all? And that’s what I like best about Knight’s songs—there is ample room to climb inside and join the ride—either by singing along or by simply identifying with what it is he chooses to sing about. Here are a few more lyrical gems from the opening tune: “My bat mobile’s a Toyota Corolla/I don’t know a penguin but I know a joker” and “The world is full of evil all over the world/Put on this little mask and be my batgirl.”

This is some refreshingly wonderful stuff.

The next song, “Your Voice is an Arrow Through My Heart,” has a brief but sweeping late ‘70s-early ‘80s cop show–style introduction (think SWAT or CHiPs; at least, I did) which gives way to a solid, catchy rhythm guitar punctuated by a great bongo and rattle/tambourine backbeat that leads to an eventual Donovanesque flutelike organ solo. Although it is all too tempting, I don’t want to make too much of the lyrics—it seems like analyzing the motion of a grass-blade in the breeze or a stolen moment between lovers in a used book store aisle—the universality of it all is key to the song’s success, and I’m going to leave it at that.

Listening to the next song, “Cricket,” immediately brings to mind Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, but with a beautifully alternative twist— What if Gregor Samsa’s whole experience of being transformed into an insect was a positive trip…forget all the human feelings of guilt and not being adequate, and being all alone as being a terrible thing and focus on the positive—the freedom involved in being a magical little music-making insect. That seems to me to be the essence of “Cricket,” accented by the lyric “You can go there with me/If you really wanna be/Free.” Musically, it opens with a classic carnival oom-pah beat, and the simulation of an old style organ grinder straining to keep its momentum but dragging itself along. The subtle melody line is supported by terrific insectizoid instrumentation and effects.

“Cricket” also features a bit of poetic license as Knights says, “Alright, I’m gonna rub my legs together” and then creates a sort of onomatopoeia cricket-sound that can somewhat be rendered as “jzooey jzooey jzooey jzooey.” Technically, the cricket rubs its wings together, not its legs, but we can forgive a little inaccuracy for the sake of artistic vision/clarity, especially when considering the fact that as a human-turned-cricket, anything goes.

The next song on the EP, “Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?” is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the most complex, philosophical, and musically deft (featuring a well-crafted melody of piano/guitar and a subtler version of the flutelike organ we heard earlier on the CD). It is a touching ballad in the same vein as Cat Stevens’ “How Can I Tell You?” articulating the beautiful struggle with expressing the intangible that is the Artist’s great pursuit. Knight sings about walking along the seashore (I know that journey well, having lived in the same town as Knight all through high school and logging many miles in summer and winter on the same, ever-changing stretch of sand and sea) and “stare out into the water/until it goes.” It’s that wonderful trance and transformation trip that the Seeker knows so well. Obviously, the song got me thinking about a lot of things, and what better compliment is there than that? Perhaps my favorite and certainly in a way the most enigmatic lyric on the disc is the following:

“and the waves roll in/and the waves roll out
and the breeze blows by me, yeah-----“

There is an incompleteness to the second line that deftly sums up the song’s title. “Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?” begs for multiple listens and careful consideration. It truly is a gem.

After Knight’s reflective trip to the shoreline, “Whenever,” the final song on the disc, gives us a nice acoustic beat with a great rhythm and terrific fills, as well as a series of cool little spiritual prescriptions about Life and Nature (including a neat bit of bathtub philosophy already quoted verbatim in several other reviews) along the lines of the subtle everyday wisdom of Kahlil Gibran and Rumi. Lyrics like “our mother earth/and our father up high in the sky” clue us into where Knight is as a person as well as a musician and to me, that is always a good thing. We also get a little insight into his approach to his music as just before a bass-note walk down he suddenly says
“uh—oh yeah,” as he is apparently so caught up in the magic he’s weaving that he nearly forgets to play his part. The second time around for the walk down he says “yeah” in a much more self-assured way as though the Seeker and Happy Soul is learning how to walk the line with the Artist to create something lasting and fine.

As “Whenever” ends on a perfect open C chord, it is clear that the Artist and the EP he has created with his digital lo-fi approach have succeeded on both counts.

Some closing thoughts (indulge me): In the year leading up to this review, as I have had the repeated pleasure of listening to this and another collection of Knight’s songs, and talking with him at Kathy’s used book store, The Book Bin in Pt. Pleasant Beach, on several occasions, I have come to truly admire Knight’s music (I must admit that I recently taught myself 2 of the songs on “I’m Batman” because they are just as much fun to sing and play as to listen to) and his perspective on life. With the latter in mind I offer this last bit about the EP. Take it or leave it—I know how easy it is to impose meaning on things—but the following struck me and I have decided to share it as the endpiece of this review:

The five songs on the EP seem to me to constitute a sort of circular shaman’s journey.

“I’m Batman” seems to speak to the roles we all play and how the only difference between the guy playing the Great Conqueror and the one playing the super hero is how much humor and self-deprecation we approach our play with. The young man in his role-play is suddenly faced with his first experience of unrequited love in “Your Voice is an Arrow Through My Heart” (apparently the tip is strong enough to pierce Batman’s famous body armor)—it’s that move to early manhood in the sense of Romeo and Rosalind that forever changes our way of seeing the world. After the heart is pierced it is open to the magical encounter and the journey in flight and music of “Cricket” and the quest to be Free, a quest which often leads to the sea sung so well about in “Why Can’t I Say What I Mean?” Knight covers in a three-minute song just about all of the Joseph Campbellesque symbolism that the ocean so richly provides. The final song, “Whenever” seems to me to represent the return of the cricket-shaman come back to the village to share the wisdom of what he’s learned. What makes the journey circular is that the hero is still playing a role, but it is one more concrete and less childish than that of playing Batman—although jumping into the bathwater and playing with a rubber duck still succeed best in the end.

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