Whenever I hear recording titles that release clues to the artist’s deep-seated individuality, I tend to enjoy finding the parallels that tie meaning to the music. Accidental Seabirds are a viable mystery that link body of work to composer history and background. Their new recording, The Greenpoint Spill, is an extraordinary look at an artist intent on shedding light on the darker points of our ragged reality, and the hard-earned extension of the physical activities that beset them.
The Greenpoint Spill incident that this record was named after took me back many decades to the Brooklyn neighborhood that was violated from a century of oil drainage from the ExxonMobil facilities located on Newtown Creek. For years, the ground absorbed oil and byproduct, producing an underground petroleum plume that is reported to have taken up between 50 or 60 subsurface acres beneath residences and businesses in the Greenport section of Brooklyn.
After years of unchecked destruction, the tides appear to have turned, and there is positive recuperation hope thanks to the many citizens, organizations and the inevitable capitulation of ExxonMobil, who had recently agreed to pay $25 million and head clean-up actions into the New Year and beyond. After a long period of waste, the purge has begun, and it’s a decisive new step in the process of the area’s renewal.
And like that process, Accidental Seabirds and songwriter Jesse Herdman are activating the creative safety valve in an outburst of musical release. I spoke with band member Jimmy James Cutrera, who explained the tie-in for the new record and the composer who created it.
“Jesse wrote a lot of these songs while we were living in Greenpoint, and the songs kind of spilled over into our move back to NJ. Jesse’s explanation is primarily that the Greenpoint spill is a petroleum poison floating on top of the water table in Brooklyn, giving off noxious vapors and supposedly linked to cancer-causing agents such as benzene. And thoughts can be similar to that, and this album was a way to clean up the mess he had in his mind and to find a way to sort out those feelings and thoughts. So it’s kind of a metaphoric exorcism as well as an opportunity to raise some consciousness and give reverence to the community where we lived for many years.”
The Greenpoint Spill is a 17-song look into that purging parallel of mind, body, and soul. Herdman is no common composer when it comes to the thinking process, and it’s the revisionist’s effort of activating an audience’s own thought energy when it comes to discovering the meaning of each piece. The Greenpoint Spill is also the first official full band recording, with preceding projects being fortified and recorded chiefly by Herdman himself. I should also note that the band has recruited several additional talents including multi-instrumentalist Mike Noordzy and saxman Harold Frazee as additional reinforcement on the disc. Some of the songs that stand out instantly on the recording are as follows:
“Shipwreck” highlights the organic guitar work of Herdman and Cutrera, who color this syncopated, quasi-progressive ride down the stony road of emotional continuance. The drum work of Javier Rebollar is dynamic and uniquely innovative as the bass work of Anthony Defabritus slides down underneath, pulling and steering this rousing number like a riverbed current. Herdman is tough to pin down in my search for singing styles, but at first glance, Carey Mercer (Swan Lake) and Jeff Mangum (Neutral Milk Hotel) is in the vicinity of description. Herdman’s vocal weight is light, free-flying agility up and down the entire range at the drop of a hat, and this song waves you on deck and into this group’s cornucopia of creative philosophy.
“Untitled 16” chops into play on laid-back acoustics and spider web ukulele lines before guitars report with concussive minor bridge salvos of chimey, echoed chord shimmer. I like how the supportive piano work of Defabritus walks guitars into descending dreamscapes of stark, dark and understated melody. The single note guitar hook reinforces addictive vocal melodies in this neck deep adventure of bright ideas.
“Untitled 179” ushers in drummer Alex Letizia, who points the way on this off-kilter gambol of gospel-tinged harmonies, Charlie Rich piano rolls and attention-grabbing vocal intonations. Jesse’s countertenor glides over pedal-hammered pianos and acoustic guitars as the band marches dirge-like through lyrical bones of contention. As Herdman says, “Home is where the heart attacks a little girl, who’s broken hand, threw the first…punch?”
“Bright Red” is my choice for this record’s bittersweet hit. I say bittersweet because I can guarantee that Herdman goes out of his way to avoid “commercial” results in his writing, but it ran straight into him with “Bright Red.” This song blows out of the speakers with an unshackled passion that soars in effortless strategy, strengthening the overall build into a truly superb chorus. Herdman’s voice is powerful along the fiery lines of Ben Bridwell or Rivers Cuomo. Guitars fire on top of drums and tightly locked bass. All subsequent play confirms agility of instrumentation deployment and the open-eyed church of less is more.
The Arlo Guthrie carnival ride of “Footprints” shuffles cannibalistic pitter-patter into Levon Helm-styled verse and chorus. “Footprints” showcases the backwoods banjo talents of guest Justin Herdman and a pretty humorous outlook on our possible food supply chain.
“Luvuvhu” creeps in on spooky, voodoo-laced guitar riffs and elaborate open voiced jazz chord magic. Herdman’s imagery is bizarre to say the least, and you hang on the words, wondering where he’s going next on his journey of lyrical oddities. Harmonies breeze in with timed impeccability before the band twists and spirals into tumbling, shifting guitar riff harmonies. The middle explodes in a free-for-all sequence spearheaded by the guest soprano clarinet of Mike Noordzy before refocusing into the harmony high choirs.
If David Lynch ever decided to do another movie like Wild At Heart, “Isabel” should be in it. This is desolate faith and the dubious promise of chases across the shadowed universe of chaotic love. Electric guitars sparkle and clang in Pino Rucher tremolo gold, fittingly discordant and toned with fire hot twang. Even the cymbal hits draw quick attention here, hissing and sizzling into their fade as snare hits pop and bass crawls up the backbone of this dusty jewel. Herdman’s vocal passion is indefatigable, and his timbred cry in the tail end bridge is guitar-like in its sustained carryover. This is a prime example of utilizing space, foreknowledge, and silence to deliver your best.
“Pillows” is another high point on The Greenpoint Spill, and a song that’s assured to have indie radio fluffing it day and night. I love the reverse guitar swells that chirp between down-stroked rhythmic acoustic countermeasures. This is plausibly one of a select few of Herdman’s more traditional styles of composition, and it’s a simple celebration in the wide-open vein of George Harrison after the Beatles crashed and burned. Herdman has a hell of a voice and similarities to Chris Martin rise on occasion before falling back into the concise company of Adam Duritz on this radio solid piece.
There are many interesting songs that I haven’t listed due to space, but suffice to say, this is a record you’ll want to pick up and listen to for yourself.
I was asked how I would classify Accidental Seabirds and The Greenpoint Spill, and honestly, that’s a moot point. At the end of the day, I rejoice at the fact that this is music that has the ability to evade easy comparison while providing a myriad of interpretive avenues for collectors of original art. The Greenpoint Spill may have blips of standard influential identifiers within its parameters, but for the most part, it’s off the detector of the music scene’s same ole’ song and dance.
The Accidental Seabirds will be celebrating the release of their disc at the Asbury Lanes on Friday, Jan. 10. Special guests include Shoreworld constituents Thomas Wesley Stern, The Porchistas and Creeptones. Don’t miss what’s sure to be the weekend’s best production in that dirty little “City by the Sea.” For more on the show, go to facebook.com/theaccidentalseabirds.