Change (EP)

Chris Cubeta

Galuminum Foil, 2007

http://www.chriscubeta.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/21/2007

There are hundreds, maybe thousands of versions of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” circulating out there.  As I type this I’m listening to the delicate yet undeniably passionate acoustic version from Live 1975-85, just Roy Bittan on piano and the Boss on harmonica and dusky, indomitably optimistic vocals. 

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Thunder Road,” the first time I was captivated by its urgent lyricism, the fundamental belief in the power of music that underlies its every note and syllable.  It’s a moment long since lost in the mists of time.

But I do remember the first time I heard Chris Cubeta’s new EP Change.  It was last night, and it hit me like a freight train.

It was last night, at the end of a long day filled with the demands of my new, involuntary freelance career (my previous employer shuttered its Sacramento office in September) and dealing with various minor family dramas.  I’m a strong believer that things work out how they’re supposed to in the end – it’s just that my belief is often tested.

Chris Cubeta knows exactly what I’m talking about.

Change -- available through CDbaby or Cubeta's site, and coming soon to iTunes -- is an interesting next step for Cubeta after his previous full-length CDs Sugar Sky and Faithful.  The former was produced solo (Cubeta plays everything -- and everything well) and the latter was recorded with his live band the Liars Club, but both feature full-band arrangements pretty much throughout.  Change has a more stripped-down feel, a seven-track EP that features four new songs, a spoken-word collaboration with Cubeta’s songwriting and producing partner Danny Lanzetta, and two re-recorded cuts from Sugar Sky and Faithful.

The new songs are, as has become customary with Cubeta, all excellent, a quartet of heartfelt vignettes of rootsy, Springsteenesque Americana.  These tracks are about the moments of light and darkness that enter everyday lives, about how people struggle with their own natures and how those struggles transform them.  The opening title track is a piercing examination of change in all its myriad forms, illustrating how sometimes we seek it and sometimes it seeks us, and how it rarely alters us or our lives in the way we were expecting. 

Opening over spare acoustic guitar and harmonica, “Change” does a gradual and deeply satisfying build, accelerating steadily until by the final chorus it’s become a full-band piece complete with a driving rhythm section and keening electric guitar over the top.  The following “Portrait” and “Hold On” spotlight Cubeta’s prowess with the acoustic, a pair of beautifully crafted tunes sung with an intensity befitting the poetry of the words they contain.  In between, “Innocence” adds the rhythm section back in and, at the break, a brief burst of striking, impassioned electric soloing.bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250

The Lanzetta-Cubeta collaboration “Examination” is an example of just how potent spoken-word can be, as the deep-voiced Lanzetta spits out his epically pointed poetry over Cubeta’s energetic backing track.  I’m not sure yet how a full CD of brew this strong would hit me, but employed as an interlude here, it’s dynamite.

Ah, but the best is still yet to come – the re-recordings of previously released cuts “Sugar Sky” and “Me And The Radio.”  In both cases, Cubeta puts the musical focus this time around squarely on the piano.  In the case of “Sugar Sky,” the choice only amplifies the dreamy surrealism of the wonderful lyric.

And then "Me And The Radio" comes along and delivers the coup de grace.  In its previously released full-band iteration on Faithful, it's an incongruously bouncy rumination on the power of music to uplift, to interrupt dull or difficult everyday moments with flickers of meaning and hope.  The bassline drives the entire song, a loping, companionable rhythm that immediately sets your foot tapping.

In the version found here, Cubeta strips the song down to its emotional core and removes everything but the piano for the opening verse, singing his heart out over its warm phrases and chords.  As he hits the first bittersweet chorus -- "You know it's hard, keeping up / You know it's hard, baby, to stay in love / Me and the radio song" -- he brings in slide guitar and paints the high end with soaring notes that accent and punctuate every potent line.

A little while later it falls back to just piano and voice for the last verse -- "Well I'm gettin' older by the minute / Still hear the whistle from the schoolyard / Found a minute with the radio / It's still my favorite way to hear a song" -- and when the chorus fades down for the last time at 3:55 you’re thinking "Wow, that was AMAZING" -- and then he punches right through the fade with "Me and the radio song" and the piano comes back twice as big with cymbals now picking up the beat, and then the bass kicks in underneath, and then the drums, and the piano gathers speed and takes a running, giddy leap and solos into a crescendo once, and again, and again, and then at precisely the right moment the multi-tracked, choired vocals come in singing "Still my favorite way to hear a song" over the top, the drums and now also handclaps loud and strong underneath, and repeats the line one, two, three, four times, pulling a single vocal track out of the last repeat like a thread of sound, drawing the last syllable out into a heartfelt “Oh yeaaaaahhhhh” and bringing the whole song down with it, down and home.

The first time I hear this track I'm sitting at my desk with my mouth open, catching flies.  The second time, the next day, I'm walking down the street in my neighborhood on a chilly fall afternoon with the iPod on, oblivious to the whisper and crunch of leaves in my path, with a grin on my face and goosebumps running from my wrists up my arms and shoulders and neck and scalp all the way to my forehead, a solid swath of flesh screaming a kind of inchoate joy.  I have felt this before, listening to music, maybe ten, maybe twenty times in my life. It's what keeps me coming back for more, these moments.

This song, in this arrangement, captures everything that ever made me love a song like "Thunder Road."  It's that powerful, that genuine, that moving, that essential.  It's about nurturing hope when it’s most endangered.  It’s about the persistence of love, and the pure unfiltered joy of making and listening to music.  And it’s Chris Cubeta’s finest moment -- so far.

Rating: A

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© 2007 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Galuminum Foil, and is used for informational purposes only.