special thanks to Madeline Kenney, Derek Barber, and Alexis Faulkner.
However cliché, the best art is often birthed out of necessity. In the case of Chris Alarie’s new full-length album Human Relations, this couldn’t be truer. In a sense — for the ever-prolific musician/artist/expert on matters of sports, pop culture, and nearly every genre of music — it’s his first true masterpiece. While Alarie can claim approximately sixteen albums to his name, something magical happened when he moved from his home in Oakland to attend grad school in New York City. He had no place to rehearse, no place to play and record drums, and his highly-avante garde saxophone didn’t make the trip either. While all of those elements had previously contributed to his layered, often-dissonant, lyrically-recondite songs (notably, 2014’s challenging and brilliant Cynthia) the limited resources found Alarie reinventing his sound in a profoundly affecting new way.
The songs on HR see Alarie at his sharpest in terms of lyrics, arrangements, and musicianship. Simply put, it’s as if a veil has been lifted. While Alarie’s music has always been characteristically personal, the album reveals a new maturity and candidness. Alarie’s unique, gravelly vocals are laid bare in a strangely inviting way. “Can’t build a home on alluvial sleech” — Alarie sings on opener “Super Longs” — “Can’t afford to remove my wisdom teeth.” Like the best songwriters, you just believe him when he sings. The melodies here, too, are given a new gleam. On “Rock Bottom,” showcasing some of his best guitar work to date, Alarie picks and strums with a newfound delicacy before erupting in a reverie of electric guitars and delay. “Hallucinations” (a song based on his brother’s experiences with schizoaffective disorder) is heart-wrenching in its raw beauty. Haunting acoustic layers, piano, and intimate vocals float in and out. However, the sway and swell results in a feeling not of sadness but of peculiar optimistic relief.
Optimism being a word one would rarely accuse Alarie of adhering to — his last album being titled Brutal Order (a compelling rumination on the corruption of the police and the title of his master’s thesis). That album — like much of Alarie’s previous work and his retired Oakland band In Watermelon Sugar — tended to pummel the listener into submission. But on HR, there’s an invitation as Alarie opens up in the most effective of new ways. Familiar layers and multiple-meanings may still preside over lyrics and song-titles: “One Thousand Years on the Moon” (a reference to Cynthia) and Alarie’s ever-name-altering song series “Joana,” “Johanna” and the triumphant-yet-resolved closer “Joanna, It’s Just the Moon.” Still, it’s the first time Alarie has let his guard down and found an inspired balance between intimate, lyrically rich songwriting and just the right note of dissonance amidst striking musical arrangements.
Referring to his “grievous mistake” in moving to NYC, Alarie calls the album an “accident,” “the result of an ill-considered, self-imposed exile,”and that “the way the album sounds comes, in part, from stupid, life-altering decisions.” Ever the kind-hearted curmudgeon and lovable self-deprecator, the truth is Human Relations is actually the result of Alarie’s heartening, stubborn persistence to create art and music in spite of self-doubt and disappointment. For Alarie, it’s a necessity.
released May 1, 2017
Copyright 2017, Copper Mouth Records
All songs written, performed, and recorded by Chris Alarie
all rights reserved