This is not a band to be taken lightly – the name “Populuxe” should be self-explanatory. While the melody and song structures are of a “poppy” nature (versus abrasive and unlistenable), their lyrics are of a deep, complex and meaningful nature. This latest release, Beauty In The Broken Place, is the embodiment of melding human emotion in words and the healing nature of music together.
This is a serious album; there is a very clear story to be told when “reading” this album – let alone the hope that listeners will understand and absorb the power of the message – and it’s the wrenching-from-the-soul lyricism of Rob Shapiro that drives this album forward and gives it a power that is rarely seen or heard since the turmoil of the 1960’s.
Except, this is different – this is REAL, factual, brutal and recent. The album is mapped out as a complete unfolding of the real events that the song cycle is based on and it isn’t pretty. The music made is beautiful; harrowing and (again) uplifting but the theme is black, ugly and vile – yet presented with mastery and skill. I wish it didn’t have to be but it’s a masterpiece for the sheer courage and depth of what it SAYS, not just how it sounds and plays. Make no mistake: Mr. Shapiro created this work from a sense of profound grief, anger, frustration and understanding and the musicianship of Mr. Shapiro, Mark Pardy and Mike Mallory is passionate and exceptional. These men are to be lauded for the POWER that comes across in their performances.
On the morning of October 27, 2018, in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, the Tree of Life synagogue’s Shabbat morning services were interrupted by a terrorist’s assault. 11 were killed and 7 injured:
Find a seat. The ceremony’s about to begin
- “Green Light Morning (Waiting For A Sign)”
A perfect Autumn Saturday morning, Squirrel Hill
- “The Low Hum”
Ear to the ground…
- “Little Lambs/Regular Guys”
The garbage fire of miscreants grows, fanned and flattered.
- “The Gathering Storm”
Disparate discord coalesces into a malevolent force
You seem special. Don’t we all want to be special?
- “Walk In The Sun”
The self-anointed savior sings
- “Leaves On The Ground”
Kaddish #1 — balloons float off, leaves fall.
- “Beauty In The Broken Place”
God reluctantly visits the sanctuary, singing. We are all beauty in the broken place.
- “It’s Happening Again”
Ester, a holocaust survivor, wearily said this on seeing the news. She died about a month later.
- “Nothing Changes (Same Old Sun)”
Today’s torah portion. Sung by the sun and the moon.
- “We Told You”
Deep inside the bones, ancestors rattle, issuing warnings, panic, and nightmares.
- “The Man On The Scene”
Not an easy job.
- “Where Did I Go Wrong?”
Song for all of the well-meaning bystanders. What kind of singing will we do in the dark?
The congregation will please rise.
- “Hat of Rain”
Mourner’s kaddish, the dead singing to us, at the transformational moment. Life was absurd, wasn’t it? Is it over? Remember us.
- “The Crow’s Nest (Marchers Return)”
The defeated return.
- “The Sunsets In The West”
Also, The Sun Sets In The West. Night closes in.
This is how the songs are laid out. It needs to be listened to as a whole – several times.
It may be a little trite to take one song or the other as separate entities for the sake of a review but because I’ve been a fan of Populuxe for several years now, here are some of the individual standouts: “Green Light Morning (Waiting For A Sign)” is a joyful, lighthearted and hopeful moment, complete with that Populuxe trademark of slightly skewered time signatures, harmonies and crisp guitars; the darker Beach Boys-stylistic nature of “Walk In The Sun”‘s arrangement is a revelation – and the balance of bitterness and sweetness in the vocal delivery is not an easy feat, but pulled off by Mr. Shapiro with great success. The instant dynamic tension of “Marchers”, along with the guitar and vocals reminds me of a great lost track by a late ’70’s/early ’80’s “new wave” band whose name I will not mention for various reasons, but here, the Populuxers take the blueprint and make it their own; the warmth (no pun intended) of “Nothing Changes (Same Old Sun)” is like a blanket after the cold; an embracing piece of music to soothe.
Again, taking each of these songs track by track is pointless – this is a singular piece that must be paid complete attention to. While it’s directed towards a specific incident, it’s a universal theme and it’s the first and only time I can recall a band having the courage to address something of this magnitude head on. Populuxe should be viewed as not just a “good band” but musicians who have the ability to actually walk and talk the talk.
This is essential listening for these times.
Beauty In The Broken Place will be available as of Sunday, October 27th, 2019