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Jeff Beam has given us ‘an album for the times we’re living through’

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Jeff Beam has given us ‘an album for the times we’re living through’ (photo courtesy of the artist)

Jeff Beam had big plans for the month of April. The Portland-based musician, referred to by Rolling Stone magazine as a “psychedelic trailblazer,” had an important new record ready to drop mid-month, (his first on vinyl) accompanied by a tour of the U.S. and Canada and an extensive PR campaign to help spread the word. For obvious reasons the tour has been scuttled, but Beam’s record arrived on schedule last week, and it landed in a much different world than its creator envisioned.

Jeff Beam was interviewed for this story on March 11, shortly before life changed for all of us. Since that day, Beam says he’s left his house only two or three times. In a press release accompanying his new record, Beam says “It is unquestionably the best batch of songs I’ve ever released…It’s about transmuting negativity in positivity, being on the outside looking in, death, despair and desperation, but also truly seeing the light through the fear and chaos. I really believe it’s an album for the times we’re living through.”

I started listening to the nine tracks on Beam’s new album in mid-February, and while the grooves, hooks, and layered sounds remain unchanged upon release, some of the lyrics seem to have taken on an alternate significance in this weird limbo period of societal shutdown.

Passages like “I’m in disarray, tell you I’m in disarray,” “Slowly floating up and down again, ‘cause I’m on the peripheral,” “If you can be without, abstain, how is it we allow such pain? Maybe we’ll turn it around somehow” now somehow mean something different.

Ultimately, there is optimism and hopefulness heard throughout Beam’s new songs, along with an overall sense that a less chaotic and more unified world awaits us on the other side of our current troubles if we work together.

A subtle and succinct lyricist, Beam prefers to allow the listener to decide what the songs mean to them. In a bit of reverse engineering, he says he’ll sometimes arrive at a title before he begins tackling the verses.

“I love writing lyrics, but they almost always come later,” he said. “I sometimes come up with the title first and try to adapt the lyrics to an idea I have in my head based on the title. I usually start with the sounds first.”

The sounds embedded in the songs on “Jeff Beam,” at least in the mind of its creator, are each performed as a different color, according to him.

“I think of each song as kind of a sound painting and I try to say what I want to say through the sounds before I even get to the lyrics,” said Beam.

The album opens with “Stephen King,” a beautifully eerie song with a dreamy, psychedelic soundscape. Beam says the song was hatched while he was tinkering with a new toy called the organelle, a gift from his wife, percussionist and music therapist Kate Beever.

“It’s a little synthesizer that has about ever kind of sound you can imagine,” he said of the instrument. “I came up with the sounds on ‘Stephen King’ while I was trying to get used to it.”

So enthused at the little instrument’s possibilities, Beam says he found ways to use it to color songs throughout the new album, most of which were recorded at home in his kitchen and later mixed by Todd Hutchisen at Acadia Recording Company in Portland.

A multi-instrumentalist, Beam plays virtually every instrument heard on the album, with the exception of the pedal steel guitar heard on “Elsewhere,” a track populated with backwards effects, and the vibraphone performed for the record’s closing song, “The Loaner.”

That song, along with the album’s fifth song, “Think Twice, it’s Not Alright,” seem to be nods to songs by Neil Young and Bob Dylan respectively. Intended, I asked Beam?

“I like to pay intentional homage to some of the artists I love, and Neil is at the top of the list for me,” Beam said. “‘Think Twice, It’s Not Alright’ was originally called ‘You Were Cheering for the Villain,’ but I thought that was a little too on the nose, so I decided to allude to a classic song title to divert the listener’s attention in a different way.”

Of his influences, Beam says they are substantial in number, but he admits he hasn’t been listening to a lot of music by other artists these days, instead preferring to create his own.

“The Beatles is where it kind of all started for me,” he said. “I’ve dived off into some more modern psych stuff like Radiohead and Thom Yorke. I’ve usually worked with acoustic instruments and electric guitars, so it’s been really fun to cascade into more exotic instruments, spacey arrangements, and unpredictable left turns that keep the listener engaged.”

Not that this album lacks the presence of traditional rock instruments; indeed, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, and drums are heard throughout when Beam felt the song called for them.

“Think Twice…” and “It’s All Gonna Come Crashing Down” are two of the album’s most alluring tracks, each imbued with sonic splashes of color that punctuate the messages contained within.

The bass-driven “Peripheral” opens up to layers of reverb-rich vocals as Beam sings of a desire to be part of something but feeling like an outsider. Or maybe he meant something entirely different, that’s part of the fun of digging into this music.

Two instrumental link tracks provide a brief change of scenery in the form of “Turn On Your Mind (before it turns on you),” a piece led by the sounds of guitar tracks played backwards, and a minor key acoustic piece called “Warn Yourself.”

The cover art for “Jeff Beam” is a sketch of the artist from a 2008 tour stop in Portsmouth. At the time, Beam was playing guitar for alt-country/Americana band Roy Davis & The Dregs.

“The band walked into a coffee shop, where there was guy out front talking to anyone who would listen,” Beam explained. “For some reason, I said ‘I’m going to listen to this guy.’ He said, ‘I’ll draw you for five bucks.’ I only had a dollar on me, but that was good enough. I love what he came up with.”

Beam’s five-piece band had intended to unveil the new record with some high-profile concerts this month. With every artist’s performance plans on hold at the moment, Beam will have to wait before heading out on tour. It won’t be easy for a musician used to hitting the road every couple of months for the last six years, a work ethic he says he acquired as a member of the band The Milkman’s Union, an outfit which also featured Burlington-based singer/songwriter Henry Jamison.

“Henry is one of the kindest and most thoughtful people I’ve ever met,” Beam said of his former bandmate, whose solo career has seen major ascension in the last couple of years. “On top of that, he’s just a brilliant musician and songwriter. We were road warriors for a long time and I’ve tried to adopt that mindset with my own music.”

In a live setting, Beam and his band create a concert experience that blends a classic rock band setup with the modern technology necessary to replicate some of the more intricate sounds and effects heard in his songs.

There is another side to Jeff Beam, and if you have attended a concert at One Longfellow Square in Portland, there’s a good chance you’ve exchanged greetings with him, or maybe shared a conversation about the artists who perform there. Beam is currently in his fourth year as venue manager and programming director for the venue and is usually one of the first to greet guests upon arrival.

Beam has been recording and releasing music under his own name since 2007, but he says “Jeff Beam” is the first album he wants people to hear. After devoting countless hours to its creation, Beam says the feeling he had after hearing this finished record for the first time is the one he’s always chasing.

“To be proud of your work, and I am. It felt amazing to hear the finished record. I started out with about 30 songs or so. It’s like you put them all in a strainer and the stuff that doesn’t belong kind of falls through, and after you shake it up for a long time, you have nine songs that all kind of fit together. It sneaks up on you but it’s really fun when you realize that all the pieces are there.”

“Jeff Beam” may have arrived in a much different world than the one in which it was conceived, but it’s a record full of hope, intrigue, mystery and surprise. I stand by a note I wrote to myself after hearing it for the first time two months ago: “Makes you want to listen to find out what’s going to happen.”

(“Jeff Beam” is available on vinyl from Bull Moose stores, on all digital download and streaming services, and on cassette and CD in very limited quantities at jeffbeam.bandcamp.com.) 

Last modified on Friday, 24 April 2020 12:40

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