On April 5, 2011, artist and songwriter Andy Friedman will release his third studio album, Laserbeams and Dreams (City Salvage Records). Produced by noted guitarist and producer David Goodrich (Chris Smither, Peter Mulvey), the album was recorded in Friedman’s Brooklyn neighborhood and cut in 24 hours with one overdub and mixed in the studio. Complementing Friedman’s “art-damaged, ragged-but-right” (L.A. Weekly) approach and Goodrich’s restrained, atmospheric lead guitar and piano is rising-star upright bassist and composer Stephan Crump (Grammy®-nominated Vijay Iyer Trio, Jim Campilongo), whose latest album of “ingenious originals” (The New Yorker), Reclamation (recorded with his Rosetta Trio), NPR spotlighted among its top five jazz albums of 2010. The interplay of Friedman’s “engagingly singular” (Philadelphia Inquirer) songwriting and “slow, lugubrious, dipped in country heartache” (Hartford Advocate) strum with Crump’s “full, appealingly wooden sound” (The New York Times) calls to mind classic collaborations by Van Morrison with bassist Richard Davis on 1968’s Astral Weeks, or John Hartford and Dave Holland on 1972’s Morning Bugle Call — albums also recorded live in the studio without much pre-conceived musical planning. “We captured the mood created,” says Friedman. “It wasn’t our place to second-guess the results.”
Andy Friedman first hit the road as a self-described “Slideshow Poet” in 2002, leaving his day job as an office assistant in the Editorial Department at The New Yorker to accompany projections of his paintings, drawings, and Polaroids with readings of his poetry in dive bars and rock clubs around the nation. The hybrid performance was applauded by journalists as “the coolest show to come around in a long time” (Good Times [Santa Cruz]), and introduced Friedman as “The King of Art Country” (City Pages [Minneapolis]). The transition from traveling poet to rambling musician occurred when the “erudite redneck” (Boston Globe) picked up the guitar and sang for the first time in his life in 2005, shortly before recording his debut album, Taken Man (City Salvage Records), the title track of which landed at #30 on a New York Post “Best Songs” list that included over 200 hits by artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Andrew Bird, Amy Winehouse, and The National.
Friedman’s reputation as a “dusty, paint-splattered Americana sage” (Rochester News & Democrat) germinated with the release of the CD Weary Things (City Salvage Records) in 2009, garnering enthusiastic praise, a performance on NPR’s coveted Mountain Stage, a feature interview on XM’s Bob Edwards Show, and a growing audience. The online cultural journal Slant hailed Friedman as “an arrival of one of the genre’s smartest and deepest talents.” His “hard-tack country originals” were described in The New Yorker as “the mark of a true artist,” while NoDepression.com called his songs “unforgettable.” Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor proffered the song “Weary Things” as a “certified, genuine American tune,” and Indie-icon Sufjan Stevens proclaimed, “I think the world of Andy Friedman. I’ve always wanted to be Andy Friedman.” Largely overlooked, Weary Things was highlighted alongside titles by Tom Waits and Chuck Prophet by the Associated Press among “The Best Overlooked Albums of 2009.” “Friedman can write a lyric, and he can deliver it,” declared Stephen Wine. “He is not to be overlooked, that’s for sure.”
Laserbeams and Dreams tackles themes of religion, aging, disillusionment, and family, but images of death prevail in all forms. The gospel dirge “Time for Church” is the album’s opener, and finds Friedman renouncing religion in favor of drink, music, and art. “It’s time for church/It’s five o’clock,” he sings. “Pour a drink/let the record play.” Friedman’s vocals boom with an echo recalling the classic Nashville Sound recorded by Chet Atkins at RCA in the late ’50s and ’60s. The lilting “Motel on the Lake” presents death as the crumbling façade of a once vibrant Catskill Mountain summer resort community more famously referred to as the Borscht Belt, which the singer now reports “whips the children.” Goodrich brings haunting upright piano to “May I Rest When Death Approaches,” a song based on a series of poems written by Friedman’s father-in-law days before his passing. “Roll On, John Herald” is at once a tribute to the late John Herald — a founding member of the seminal late-’50s bluegrass trio the Greenbriar Boys, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the summer of 2005 — and a humbling, dark portrayal of life as an obscure legend on the road. “When Vin played him on Idiot’s Delight/I knew John Herald had died,” growls Friedman, who befriended the singer when Herald invited the then “slideshow poet” to open a string of dates in 2003. In “Quiet Blues,” recorded minutes after the ferocious “Roll On, John Herald,” Friedman laments with newfound vocal sensitivity the death of peace and quiet in the digital age. “Hey, Command Z/bring the quiet blues back to me,” he warbles. “Recording those two songs without a break was like a biathlon,” says Friedman. Singer-songwriter Jen Chapin, who is married to Crump, lent the guitar played by her father — the late Harry Chapin — to Friedman for the recording of Laserbeams and Dreams.
It’s not all death and despair for Friedman, who approaches these themes with the acerbic wit and dark humor of a New Yorker gag cartoon — a pastime with which the singer has found past success under the pseudonym Larry Hat. With “Going Home (Drifter’s Blessing),” Friedman delivers an anthem for the little-known folksinger trying to make it out on the road, whose faith in himself is tested by long drives, missed family, and dismal turnouts, but can only wish the life on his children and theirs. In “Down by the Willow,” the album’s closer, Friedman is seduced by the serenity of life in the country but is “shackled and chained” to the gritty confines of the city, revisiting the famous car wash scene from the 1967 Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke.
Friedman will perform the record in its entirety, accompanied by David Goodrich and Stephan Crump, on select dates during the Laserbeams and Dreams tour.