Now is not the time for Gabriel Kahane. His heart belongs to fin-de-siècle Austrian art music and musical theater, not currently the hippest of musical hybrids. Kahane doesn’t just play gigs and write records. He receives commissions, premieres works, accompanies renowned opera singers and violinists, and gets written up by the classical-music critic in the New Yorker. And yet as unrelated to the pop culture mill his music may seem, Kahane’s linked in with the now, by practice and by proxy. His song cycle Craigslistlieder (2006, downloadable for free here) married highbrow modernism to some rather lewd texts drawn from actual postings on Craigslist. He’s recorded or performed with Rufus Wainwright, My Brightest Diamond and Sufjan Stevens, all of whom share his penchant for musical opulence.
The cheeky friction between art and trash of Craigslistlieder is long gone on Kahane’s eponymous long player, replaced by a very different aesthetic concern: how to bridle the boundless ambition of an artist who can do almost anything. Objectively, Gabriel Kahane is a scrambled patchwork, with through-composed musical-theater numbers abutting string-quartet interludes, Billy Joel piano pop morphing into morose brass arrangements, Bergian art songs leading into acoustic bluegrass. Far more than an exercise in post-modernity though, the genre hopscotch finds Kahane dressing up his biggest talent — melodies that lie just right no matter how labyrinthine they get — in a variety of outfits, each of which fits just splendidly.
Kahane bridges album opener “Durrants” and “North Adams” with a short string interlude that incorporates themes from both, one of several instances of recycling and transforming motifs to lend the album a sense of narrative unity. It’s an age-old classical tradition, and on Gabriel Kahane, it’s more a formal device than a necessity. Pop doesn’t get more stylistically varied than this, and Kahane’s playful sincerity is the thread that counts. His personable, untrained baritone buoys the elegiac piano ballad “Rochester” with a frankness that keeps it on the right side of maudlin; that same charisma takes the dissonant edge off the peculiar chamber piece “Side Streets,” an homage to the late composer György Ligeti.
Like Sufjan Stevens, who contributes eerily pretty background vocals on "Slow Down," Kahane’s most affecting songs map the human experience via physical geography. He and his father drive from Manhattan through New England in “North Adams,” an ode to the Taconic Parkway and to passage in general, that thrills in the same way that Stevens’s “Chicago” did. “Underberg” finds a bittersweet metaphor in the demolition of the Samuel Underberg building in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights (“In high school we would steal inside at night/ And make out by the glow of a traffic light/ When we tired of touching she would turn to me and say/ You know they’ll tear down this building/ some bitter black day”). This is Kahane’s New York, filled with Second Avenue bookstores (“Villanelles”), subway conductors who read Rumi in their off time (“Twice In the Night”), and the hijinks of Brooklyn’s World War II-era cultural elite (“7 Middagh”). The specificity of each song is a beacon, fixing its emotional core to a single point in Kahane’s experience so that we can search for it in our own.
Some fine guest musicians make already-vivid songs all the richer, most notably Antony & the Johnsons violinist Rob Moose, clarinetist Sam Sadigursky of the Mingus Orchestra, and Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile. It’s Kahane at the helm here, though. The piano-man austerity of both Craigslistlieder and his marvelous 5 Songs EP (2005) showed no warning sings that he was such a wonderful instrumental colorist — but there he goes, couching the wending course of “The Faithful” with a Jon Brion-worthy production of vintage keyboards and high-stepping horns, or carefully amplifying the uneasy harmonic changes of “Keene” with hanging dissonance in the strings and brass.
Kahane preserves the spirit of some of the greatest composers and songwriters in music history, from Bach to Schubert to Ives to Elton John, and yet there is nobody else within the pop-music sphere making music even remotely as sophisticated as what you’ll hear on Gabriel Kahane. This is music for the ears, the intellect and the soul, and an auspicious debut LP from one of the most prodigious talents we’ve got.