Before Sam Stringfield recently departed Charleston and the Palmetto state for that other music Mecca, otherwise known as Nashville, he gifted us with an awesome farewell present: a 6-song EP of his uber-intelligent piano rock, produced by none other than Holy City alt-country hero Ryan Bonner. On “Caught in Character”, Stringfield fires out volleys of great introspective lyrics that show an affinity for the dark side of the human psyche, reminding me of the wry and sometimes sarcastic piano-man archetype embodied by Donald Fagen or Randy Newman. Backed by a rock band, the style is fresh, recalling a post-millenial, updated take on Ben Folds Five or Billy Joel. The fully immersive sound highlights the catchiness of the songs themselves and Sam has got the songwriting part down pat. The piano playing is top notch enough to match the killer lyrical bent, keeping pace with the emotional intent of what can be pretty somber tales. I also get a kick out of Sam’s distinct vocals; his voice, sometimes wavering with emotion, has that endearing sentimental quality of idiosyncratic indie/ punk rock singers like Brian Sella (The Front Bottoms) or Sean Bonnette (Andrew Jackson Jihad).
The great opening song “When She Falls” is Billy Joel-style piano rock, raucous playing underscored by the cantankerous vocals and its apparent from the first song that Stringfield is willing to take no prisoners, baring his guts from beginning to end of the record. The heroine of the lyrics to “No Cocaine on Sundays” has a special rule to help her get through the week and like most songs here, you can vacillate between whether you should laugh at or cry with the protagonists displayed. The jazzy piano solo is a nice break to show off some chops in a song that is both epically comic AND bleak. “Past Lives” is a tale of a missed connection that eventually finds itself, with questionable results; it’s more great story-telling, with an emphasis on characters who can’t figure out how to finish their own stories. Filled with film craft metaphors and references, “Continuity” is both great poetry and an effecting song. Stringfield’s often stark ethos is right here: “’Cause you can’t fix everything in post/ There’s just some things ya gotta live with/ You can’t fix everything in post/ Sometimes shots just turn out different”. It’s raw, kind of exposed and maybe even an attempt at an uplifting self-esteem mantra by the end. “Flip Flops and Flip Phone” makes me wonder if the near-luddite beach comber portrayed in the lyrics is meant to represent the singer himself, but even if it’s just another of Stringfield’s characters, we can all find some resonance with the idea of just turning off all the email/ status alerts in our life, even if just for a little while. The EP ends with “The Eventual Pain”, Stringfield’s lone piano rolling through a lot of the song before the band joins in. A pragmatic outlook on potential love and its predictable loss, it’s a perfect example of what makes Sam so good: he explores love as a desirable concept, but is he going to sugarcoat it? Hell, no.
“Caught in Character” has, among all its positive points, one facet that I found especially rare: The EP does a fine job of making a music that bridges a huge generational gap. Creating sounds nowadays that can be appreciated by both old-timers and a younger indie crowd is a feat in itself, and it’s a path we can hope Sam Stringfield keeps treading. The world needs more of that and I’m sure Mr. Stringfield can keep all of us laughing and crying for a long time. We can only wish that flip phone gets better reception on the beach than out there in Music City, though.
Recommended if you like: Randy Newman, Billy Joel, Ben Folds
Sean Knight is a native South Carolinian who has spent his life bouncing back and forth between SC and Texas, playing in bands you probably never heard of in both states and stinking up open-mic nights in the Low Country for many years. He plays, collects, listens to and probably spends too much of his life obsessing over music.