It’s not hard to hear why Jamie Stewart (a.k.a. Xiu Xiu) would have turned Absolutely Kosher honcho Cory Brown on to the delicate piano ballads of Brooklynite Chris Garneau. Garneau’s debut, Music for Tourists, shares a certain sensibility with the mellower side of Stewart’s songwriting: It’s painfully heartfelt, hauntingly stark and miked so close you can hear his lips part as he sings.
But that’s really where the comparisons end. Garneau’s music is too full of light and playfulness to be much of a bedfellow with the brutality and abjection of Xiu Xiu. Instead, Garneau’s attention is equally divided between quotidian heartaches — a friend’s binge drinking in “Not Nice,” being broke in “So Far” — and escapist fantasies. On “Black & Blue,” for example, Garneau wishes he were “a little smaller” like “a little creepy crawler.” It’s an insistently cheerful way to navigate the palpable sorrow that lurks beneath even his sweetest melodies. But when the restraint of his whisper opens up into explosive projection and his lyrics become unavoidably direct, the cracks begin to show. So when a line like, “I want to catch my death of cold/ because I’m scared of growing old,” erupts after a wistful admission that he’d like to be a “creepy crawler,” it hits all the harder.
To match Garneau’s candidly pained preoccupations, Music for Tourists is dominated by equally naked arrangements. He seldom strays from his plodding piano chords. And his band — Saul Simon-MacWilliams on bass and harmonium, Ben Kalb on cello — never distract the attention from the songs themselves. Instead, their understated accompaniment adds much-needed depth to such sparse compositions. When one of Kalb’s moody cello lines stretches across echoing piano chords, it creates a sweeping sense of catharsis that picks up where Garneau’s broken musings leave off.
The album closes with a haunting version of Elliott Smith’s “Between the Bars,” rendered feverishly desperate by Garneau’s hushed falsetto. It’s a fitting conclusion for an album that claims to be “music for tourists”: Here, the songwriter slips out of his persona and uses someone else’s words and music to re-articulate his own experience. It might serve as a figurative vacation, but Garneau’s choice of material leaves him covering territory that feels like home: heartbreak and unadorned, plaintive melody.