San Antonio piano madman Harvey McLaughlin’s new LP is packed with soul, memorable characters

click to enlarge OSCAR MORENO
Oscar Moreno
Singer-songwriter Harvey McLaughlin combines a highly stylized vibe with a strong melodic sensibility on his new album Rascality, which drops October 16 on Saustex Records. Though the San Antonio-based piano pounder owes more musically to Randy Newman, it’s easy to imagine videos for his songs being shot in the style of the Greg Kihn Band’s 1980s horror-drenched classic “Jeopardy.”

McLaughlin can spit out lyrics like an old-school fire-and-brimstone type. The clever bits come so fast and furious they’re impossible to process on a single spin. However, he offsets the wordplay with a soulful streak that belies a heart underneath the zanier bits that conjure monsters akin to Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”

It’s a combination McLaughlin introduced on 2018’s Tabloid News, his solo debut, and further expanded on with the 2019 EP Automaton. However, Rascality benefits from more experienced songwriting, stronger playing and more detail-focused arrangements.

The songs are packed with memorable characters, striking imagery and attention to detail that serves the strong melodies well. There is a pervasive short story atmosphere that gives the record an LA vibe, suggesting a Raymond Carver anthology set to music. That sensibility forms one of the two core strengths of McLaughlin’s writing.

“Ghosts on Mars” opens the album with an R&B tinged rave-up complete with a celebratory horn section. “Teenage Yeti” continues in a humorous vein, but heavier on a Misfits-style mining of drive-in tropes than satire. No Weird Al here. McLaughlin’s choice of chord changes enhances the mood, particularly the way the piano part locks in with the drums as the chorus starts up.

“The Amazing Mole Boy” offers the third in the album’s cinematic trilogy, and the backwoodsy arrangement of “Mole Boy” — including a banjo — invokes a dark Americana vibe.

“Poor Gary From the Gallows” is the first track that feels Dylanesque, although more in the lyrics and vocal delivery than in the musical arrangement. The percussion feels a bit hippie-ish, but more Altamont, less dippy. “Miss It When I’m Gone” has a solo piano bar feel, so much so that a “tip your waiters and waitresses” shout out wouldn’t be too out of place. Similarly, “Low and Slow” invokes a saloon with the arrangement’s interlocking lines forming a musical chase scene.

“Ping’s Chinese Restaurant” is highlighted by a quick vocal delivery. The line “hasn’t worked since Clinton got impeached” serves to remind that our modern political problems have been going on long enough that — the era has ghosts from the time before. The song’s sax solo allows a horn to venture outside of backing-section status.

The second half of the album features a slower tempo, overall, and that plays to the strength of McLaughlin’s soulful vocals. The sequencing works well, giving the back half a more mournful feel, the dark bits away from the well-lit path.

“Tangled Web” and its slinky tempo continues to evoke a dark LA landscape, this time with a noir twist. The noisy guitar solo is a tip of the hat to more avant-garde stylings, a confirmation that McLaughlin has plumbed outside of this genre, even if it’s not always apparent on a superficial level. The album’s first single, “Outside Crescent Moon,” is similarly sinister.

“Proudfoot” again evokes Dylan, this time with a yearning for past woes — a sentiment that forms the second of McLaughlin’s core strengths. In the same way that Dylan has spent the last 20 years invoking a haunting take on Americana, McLaughlin is at his best conjuring up ghosts via forgotten or aged musical styles rather than literal ghosts (or aliens, or yetis, or…).

On both “Proudfoot” and “Coney Island Waltz,” McLaughlin has a way of making it seem reasonable to feel nostalgic for past pains. The familiarity of the chord changes helps create the feeling. McLaughlin — or at least his record company — appear to recognize the strength of “Proudfoot,” having released it as the second of the album’s advance singles.

And, finally, there is “Coney Island Waltz,” the album’s strongest track, despite being a bit of an outlier, composition-wise. The chord changes share a familiarity with “Proudfoot,” but the approach is weirder, as highlighted by the xylophone around the edges. McLaughlin may make humor one of his signatures, but the closing track and “Proudfoot” display the soul under the silliness. They also serve as a reminder that being funny isn’t enough: making a memorable long player requires songwriting chops.

And Rascality shows that McLaughlin’s got those in spades. Maybe even Sam Spades.

At times, the album feels like a winking tribute to pop culture that was never birthed but should have been. One gets the sense that somewhere there’s a mysterious museum filled with celluloid stills from long lost cartoons and murderous silent films that inspired this record, despite the fact that they never even existed.

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