Walking Away from Winter
erforming at the intimate Tonic in New York City last month, local piano man Gabriel Kahane cracked about media hype, joking that the career of 20th-century composer Charles Ives, featured in the opening act, had been bolstered by a 9/10 rating attention from a certain make-or-break online publication. Kahane delighted the local indie color in the audience, who were also overjoyed to learn that half of Kahane’s performance was based on comedy: a so-called “Craigslist Song Cycle,” or “Craigslistlieder” spanning more than half of his 2006 release. Preceding a string arrangement from My Brightest Diamond, Kahane also provided the serious elegance of his album’s first half: simple piano ballads steeped in a tradition oft revived, but nearly fifty years gone.
Kahane has remarked that the audience of the “Craigslistlieder,” four operatic numbers set to the libretti of New York Craigslist personals ads, cares less for the simple earnestness of original songs like “Underberg,” where Kahane showcases his full-bodied, stage-ready contralto to the accompaniment of wholesome, assonant chords and wandering, inventive dissonant plunks. Together voice and piano create a thick, moody atmosphere that the Craigslistlieder quickly abolishes with “You Looked Sexy” and the lines, “You looked sexy / Even though you were having a seizure.” From the start, the Craigslist song cycle captures the overblown drama behind musical theater, and serves as a fine complement to Kahane’s bluesy candor.
The audience would be quick to whisperingly compare opener “Vernon Drive” to Ben Folds, an unfortunate characterization but an inevitable one: there are few pianists in recent memory that exemplify the sprightly power of Bacharach, John, or Joel with such precision or energy. By the artist’s own estimation this release is more EP than album, and does suffer by its brevity, the Craigslist songs to some degree stealing the spotlight from Kahane’s primary goal as a solo artist. Still, the playful melodic pounces of “Brocade,” which narrates a sleepless New York night and last minute romantic rendezvous, conveys youthful ambulation with music that outlasts the lyrical message, upon which the Craigslist songs so heavily rely.
With the introduction of the Craigslist songs, the Tonic audience was in stitches. Kahane loosened up, brow furrowed ironically, voice opening wide to accommodate the dramatic urgency of digital communication that, in the end, is showcased as poignantly as Kahane’s own personal reflections. “Craisglistlieder III. Half a Box of Condoms,” like the best humor, relates a scenario (old, unused prophylactics in a sock drawer, waiting to be used) that is at root quietly devastating and universal. The lieder is, then, a sweetly profound counterpoint to Kahane’s own messages; the Craigslist songs are, if easy laughs, also one and the same with Kahane’s original compositions, though the former show off his virtuosic, classically inspired fingerwork in a manner that could be well harnessed on future original works.