BY DAN BUSKIRK I am willing to wager double nickels on the dime that you have never even heard of what is quite simply the Best Album of 2007: Ray’s Vast Basement‘s Starvation Under The Orange Trees. Well, now you have. Starvation is the San Francisco band’s third release and it’s their most fully-realized disc to date. Their name stems from their highly theatrical past: The band’s early shows were mixtures of staged scenes and musical performance, conjuring the fictionalized history of a tiny corner of the rocky coast of Northern California where a guy named Ray ran a speakeasy out of a cave. This morphed into their first release On The Banks of the Time (2000) which included a stack of hand-screened postcards giving a timeline of the history of the cave and the many colorful denizens who occupied the imaginary town of Drakesville. Despite its self-release and its limited distribution it found its way to David Dye‘s desk, who proclaimed the disc “a homemade masterpiece” and invited the band to perform on the World Cafe.
All this self-created myth is the brainchild of Jon Bernson, a young man whose family history evaporated in the tumult of the Holocaust that enveloped Europe in the second World War. This deep-seated need to secure the past gives Bernson’s writing an unforced resonance that makes his stories come alive and escape being merely musty nostalgia for a world gone by. With Starvation Under the Orange Trees the band breaks away from the Drakesville cycle but it is still consumed by the past, its song written for and inspired by a recent staging of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice & Men.
Wide swaths of that Central California landscape that Steinbeck wrote about is remarkably unchanged and the disc find ways to capture it with earthy shading provided by musical saw, harmonica, washboard and cornet. Keeping the disc from turning into a retro hoedown is an underpinning of found sounds and field recordings. And then there is the songs themselves, beautifully arranged little nuggets of love, regret, hope and apocalypse — complex emotional weather systems that are as much tomorrow as they are yesterday.
In a world aching for music this rich and real how could this miracle of a record miss? Maybe because it’s a real full-length album, it songs building and cohering, as opposed to a collection of tracks jingling around like loose change in our iPod driven world. Maybe it’s too grand for our lowered expectations. Certainly that isn’t you though, just click on to Phawker radio and separate yourself from the teeny-boppers as Ray’s Vast Basement quietly burns down the universe and re-imagines it to their own liking.