Graded on a Curve: Thomas Comerford, Introverts

Chicagoan Thomas Comerford is releasing his fourth solo album, Introverts, on July 18. He’s drawn comparisons to early Wilco, which is apt as his work benefits from the heft and interactive spark of a multi-piece band, but more striking is the stated influence of Gene Clark and Tim Hardin, acknowledgements that reinforce his singer-songwriter bona fides. Like many who fortify the annals of the vocalizing tunesmith, Comerford’s compositions possess an instantaneous allure that only grows with repeated listens. His latest, which offers eight selections on vinyl and digital, is available via Spacesuit Records.

The immediate appeal described above is indeed right there in Introvert’s opening track “Not Like Anybody Else,” specifically through guitar strum that hangs halfway between Loaded-era Velvets and the biggest hit by Stealers Wheel (you know the one). However, the largeness of Matthew Cummings’ bass playing favors the VU side of the equation (definitely a positive), while the vividness of Comerford’s words establish him as an uncommonly astute exponent of the singer-songwriter tradition. Adding to this is distinctive inflection that at times recalls Bill Callahan and David Berman.

Don’t let those comparisons insinuate that he’s aping either of the two. It’s just that Comerford has a tone, likeably unsmooth, that’s well-suited for the flowing musicality of his delivery. Setting him apart is a lack of awkwardness or the idiosyncratic in his singing, as he alternates laidback flirtations with impassioned crescendos in “Cowboy Mouth,” a combination that’s complemented by the song’s almost soft rock feel, and with this ambience itself tweaked with effects-laden backing vocals.

As Introverts progresses, an alt-country-tinged sensibility does occasionally take shape, though it’s to Comerford’s credit that his strain of the style resists the orthodox. In “Three Sisters” for example, the hovering synth suggests a mellotron and by extension, offers a brief dalliance with cosmic country, though together with the brisk tempo, the track simultaneously gestures toward guitar-pop.

The next cut, “Onion City,” presents something of a contrast as it stretches out to nearly five minutes. The punch of the drums, more of that bass sturdiness, the bedrock riffs (again hinting at VU), and the largeness of the gliding guitar waves combine to strengthen an atmosphere that’s decidedly melodic rock in comportment. It’s surely well-trodden territory, but here the scenario stands out, partly through inspired instrumental execution but also due to Comerford’s words as he eludes singer-songwriter clichés via elevated language and with no straining for the effect.

Put another way, the smartness that defines “Onion City” arises naturally, a circumstance that extends to Introverts as a whole. Side two begins with “Partners,” pedal steel making its entrance along with a welcome curveball of a vocal duet featuring Azita Youssefi. A veteran of the Chicago scene, having played in Scissor Girls and Bride of No-No plus releasing a handful of solo discs under her given name for the Drag City label, Youssefi’s guest singing reminds me just a smidge of Sally Timms, she of Mekons fame, a similarity that’s unambiguously positive.

But it’s just as noteworthy how “Partners” resists easy comparisons to others’ recordings, with Comerford placing his own stamp on his chosen styles rather than lingering in the shadow of anybody else’s coattails, at least on Introverts, which is the first of his three solo records that I’ve heard. And before setting forth on his own in 2011 with Archive + Spiral, he was for roughly ten years part of the band Kaspar Hauser, meaning this album’s sense of assurance derives from experience.

And maybe it’s just those good thoughts of Sally Timms, but Comerford’s use of synths and keyboards, particularly during “Spacetime So Small,” got me to thinking about how the Mekons utilized the same devices so effectively on their 1989 masterpiece The Mekons Rock ‘n’ Roll. The two albums don’t sound alike, and Introverts doesn’t sustain the same level of quality, but one shared trait is the flouting of expectations.

This resistance to pigeonholing places Comerford in good company. In “The Method,” he saunters into the pop-auteur zone and then extends the visit for “Bet Wrong.” Rhythmically robust with a piano foundation, the song blends pedal steel with pulsations and surges of synth as the deep edge of Comerford’s voice gets offset with soaring, joyful backing vocals. This beautiful number concludes Introverts, a record as enjoyable as it is multifaceted.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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