“I'm a good son, and my father's a firedancer.” The key line in the shortest song on Son of the Velvet Rat's new album elegantly attaches itself to the bare bones of a waltz that is carried by nothing but Georg Altziebler's acoustic guitar, winding its way deep into the listener's head with the insistence of an endless chorus. But impressions deceive: In fact Altziebler sings this line only once.
“I say 'Who am I to deserve this?' but I get no answer,” he continues in characteristically dead-pan style.
“This record has a lot to do with my father's death,” Altziebler explains, “Some of the lyrics were written immediately afterwards, and they are full of the contradictions of such an experience. The same way that there is no pure love, there can hardly ever be pure grief. But who would want that anyway? Humor, yes. Energy. And rage, of course.”
This is why the title song, resting like a quiet centerpiece in the middle of the album, is surrounded by some of the most life-affirming, outright danceable songs ever to have appeared on a Son of the Velvet Rat record. In a song called “The Pond”, swept along by the joy of the moment, the usually reserved singer even allows himself a spontaneous “Wooh!”
Even the aforementioned feelings of rage are tempered by sarcasm: “Friends with God” tries (and fails) to make peace with the cruel cynicism of fate: “I need a new rabbit to pull out of my hat / All I've conjured up now are roadkill and rats.”
His shoulders bowed under the weight of the world, brows permanently knitted with skepticism, this gaunt magician presents his bunny with a wry smile on his lips. Having chased it for thousands of miles, he finally caught it on his own doorstep.
Unlike its predecessors that were mostly recorded on trips to the USA, “Firedancer” came alive in Sasa Prolić's Garaz̄a studio back in Altziebler's Austrian hometown Graz. The cast of players included not just his wife and musical partner Heike Binder, long-standing compadres Albrecht Klinger (this time on bass) and drummer Anne Weinhardt, Matthias Loibner on the hurdy gurdy, Fritz Ostermayer on the ukulele as well as organ and piano parts by Martin Gasselsberger and Fabio Schurischuster, but also new friends such as multi-instrumentalist Kolja Radenković (guitar, mandolin, trumpet, flugelhorn), saxophonist Jani Šepetavec, guitarist Sas̄enko Prolić and backing vocalist Vesna Petković.
The latter four all belong to a Bosnian/Serb/Croat diaspora that settled in the capital of Austria's southernmost province Styria after the Yugoslav civil war just across the border two decades ago. On “Firedancer”, their presence adds a new, homegrown mix of colors to the palate of Altziebler's sounds. “It's certainly not Americana,” he says, “I've done enough of that already.”
Altziebler has a point. Over the years, in a sequence of albums stretching from “By My Side” via “Playground”, “Loss & Love”, “Animals” and “Red Chamber Music” to last year's collection of covers “Reaper”, Son of the Velvet Rat took their mission of assimilating transatlantic vibes to a level of perfection that left little to add. If Altziebler's music has always been a vehicle for his longings, then it made sense for these longings to switch direction in line with his recent move across the water.
These days Altziebler and Binder commute, their little son in tow, every six months between Graz and a nameless small town in the middle of the Californian desert.
With its chorus about getting rid of “that hole in your heart”, the song “Trapped Sunlight” eloquently spells out the hollow feeling of uprootedness felt be anyone who has ever moved to an entirely new and alien place:
“The hills in the distance seem so near
It takes more than a lifetime to get there from here
Life here is slow – speed never pays
Not in the heart of the city anyway”
While Ken Coomer, Altziebler's friend from Nashville and former member of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco, has again contributed percussion and a song like the cinematic ballad “Day at the Beach” owes much of its magic to the voices of “soul sisters” Gale Mayers and Angela Primm, the central European soul of the song comes to the fore in Kolja Radenković's lilting mandolin, the wistful sounds of Heike Binder's accordion and the sigh of Matthias Loibner's hurdy gurdy.
You can almost picture Altziebler sitting there under the Western sun, grabbing his guitar and searching for the lost spirit of the Old World in the gaps between the strings.
Only a pedant would suggest he might undertake this search over on the other coast: “What a sweet thing when it dawns on you / That your love’s really your best friend / Makes you feel like you’re winning the Blue Ribbon / Without having to sail to world’s end,” he sings in “Blue Ribbon”.
Never mind speeding across the Atlantic when it takes much more guts to heed the call of the “Captain's Daughter” and jump over board: “Brother if you want a free ride, give in to the water”
“To me these aren't really metaphors,” Altziebler explains, “They stand for nothing, they define spaces, they're like verbal kindling. Images can make ideas abstract and spell them out in return.”
Sometimes, e.g. in album closer “King of Cool”, the lines in these images are blurred:
“And I wonder, would you make an effort
And I wonder, would you break the rule
The guideline of your master
Elusive king of cool
And let it show”
It's not clear if the main protagonist will drop his mask or rather go down the well-trodden path towards numbness and emotional blindness. But his description brings to mind his opposite number, the Firedancer we heard about earlier on, especially that other crucial line where Altziebler takes a clear stance, identifying with the cultural diversity of his roots in Graz whose gentle but persistent pull he only felt on the other side of the ocean. Or maybe even identifying with his deceased father:
“But I'm a firedancer too / I know anyway.”