With his main group, the Walkmen, on “extreme hiatus” since last year, bassist and organ player Peter Matthew Bauer has been working on this first solo LP, a solid indie album with a multi-cultural motif and a distinctly NYC vibe. Liberation! telegraphs sheer, electric confidence from the first track, I Was Born In An Ashram, which starts out with the sound of children shouting before transitioning into a cool, echoey, guitar-driven ode to the small town life and the wide open future. Happily, this initial confidence continues throughout for an album that, despite thematic pitfalls, carries a consistently engaging, enthused and affable tone.
The album flits from tradition to tradition between tracks, incorporating the spirit and framework of Latin, Eastern and American musicality. The song Philadelphia Raga, for instance, takes the wandering, mystic structure of typical sitar riffing and adapts it to an acoustic guitar. The end product is a clean and clever sound that calls upon an exotic muse, as so much of Liberation! does. On the title track, a mixed-gender choir joins in repeating “liberation” in Spanish. Istanbul Field Recording stands out as the most experimental piece, a grainy, remote recording of a lonely piano occasionally joined by the scattered sound of distant chanting. Later on in the album we are brought back to the American northeast for Shaved Heads & Ponytails, a pseudo-protest song with some subtle Springsteen inspiration in the imagery (“Down on the tracks/by the black-painted bells”). Just about every song has a runaway mantra in its refrain. Liberation!’s identity is defined by a home it is constantly trying to escape.
Bauer’s voice is strong, combining the charm of a Tom Petty-esque mellowness with the youthful energy of classic alt-rock. The lyrics are sometimes jumbled but generally follow the same optimistic “ride to nowhere” theme that makes Liberation! feel like a concept album that isn’t. The instrumentals vary from richly produced acoustic guitars to choral backing vocals in different languages, always seeming to border on becoming world music, but remaining in the indie realm.
That lack of fuller immersion into world music is definitely the album’s main problem. Bauer’s efforts to unify a wider sonic template and alt-rock energy are often unfocused and half-hearted. This album is a more-than-decent listen with some moments of real beauty, but it’s not the powerhouse that it aspires to be. For all of the artsy, eclectic verbiage (i.e. Irish Wake In Varanasi (For Big Pete Devlin) and Scientology Airplane Conversations), the poetry is fairly standard. The international themes tend to come off more presumptuous than enlightening.
Still, when Bauer lets a song thrive on its own energy, such as on the closing track You Are The Chapel, the results are smart and self-aware. Liberation! may not achieve its loftiest goals, but Bauer does manage to launch his solo career with talent and class.