Independent release, 2016
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 02/09/2016
It’s possible that there exists an experience more bracingly poignant than observing a gifted, fearless artist turn their most visceral pains and joys into art. It’s possible; I just can’t imagine what it would be.
There are really only two things you need to know to set the stage for Noam Weinstein’s On Waves. First, the Boston singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist-producer has released eight albums that have earned regional airplay and a soundtrack placement on Showtime’s Weeds; in other words, he’s a talented, experienced, versatile craftsman. Second, in the space of the year he wrote and recorded the 15 songs that make up this album, his beloved mother died and his new son was born.
With help from a small army of supporting players (16 are listed in the liner notes), the music Weinstein delivers here is clever and tuneful, a chamber pop smorgasbord surrounding guitar, piano, bass and drums with vibes and viola, trombone and cello, harp and pedal steel, all inhabiting pervasively warm and organic production. But it’s not all bells and whistles and density of sound; each song is its own little scenario inhabiting its own idiosyncratic vibe. One minute you’re skipping through a mid-’60s George Martin fantasia; the next you’re sidestage as a Jewish kid from Boston nails a horn-heavy classic soul arrangement beamed direct from Berry Gordy’s frontal lobe.
When you get to the songs themselves, the adjectives begin to break loose and tumble out one after another: raw, honest, heart-wrenching, hilarious, guileless, incisive, melodious. These songs are all of the above, and more, and perhaps the most realistic aspect of this album is the way all of these moods and moments blur together into a kaleidoscope of everyday life, with all its frustrations and blessings, giddy highs, devastating lows and eyebrow-arching asides.
The first six songs capture the essence of On Waves. Opener “Last Reincarnation” bounces and jives through a lyric that melds Buddhist philosophy with Northeastern snark (“You’re only as good / As your last reincarnation”), establishing the core themes of death and birth while dazzling with its musical audacity. Then Weinstein goes full Motown for the celebratory, stunning “Mother,” both loving tribute (“You always had a heart a bit oversize / You always had that ageless look in your eyes”) and gut-wrenching remembrance (“Mother / We won’t surrender / Won’t let you suffer / Mother”).
Next up, “In The Time We Have” is just what its title suggests, a melancholy ballad whose simple, stark chords and delicate lead vocal sketch the weight of impending loss. And then the circle turns and we’re looking forward with joy and wonder as Weinstein celebrates his new son by imagining what the world might look like “Through His Eyes.” That smile turns to laughter with “Hey Girl,” a classic soul come-on sung by one exhausted parent to another, sweet and hilarious precisely because it’s so spot-on real (“Hey girl, what chu do-in’ / After we put the kids to bed?”). Finally, the gentle “He Will Be” waltzes through a soon-to-be father’s speculation about the person his son will grow up to be, concluding that “I love him / Whoever he is.”
The remainder of the album plays out across a similar landscape of emotions and themes, touching on love and loss, mortality and creation, faith and romance. Nearly every moment feels sharply drawn and fundamentally honest, from the smart-alecky philosophical musings of “Intelligent Design” and “The Nightmare Of Life Is A Dream” to the sharp-elbowed romantic dialogues of “Our Frequency” and “Future Therapy Fund.”
Just when you’ve become momentarily distracted by the above, though, Weinstein returns to the heart of the album, closing with the devastating one-two punch of “I Do”—a piano ballad exploring the deepest caverns of devotion—and closer “It Comes In Waves,” an exquisite narration of grief. “The goodbyes through the glass / The light it shines / The time it shaves / It comes in waves / The grief, the grace,” sings Weinstein, voice wavering but true.
Is there any connection between my gob-smacked reaction to this album and the fact that my 88-year-old mother was hospitalized a few days before the first time I spun it, and my son and daughter-in-law announced the late-summer arrival of my first grandchild a few days after? Of course there is. The projection of reality onto art and its reflection back onto reality through the creator’s lens can absolutely have a magnifying effect. But that’s precisely what is special about this album, and most art that matters: authenticity. Beyond its effortless combination of rawness and musical craft, On Waves is above all real, a deeply genuine and genuinely moving album constructed from some of the sharpest pains and richest joys a human being can feel.