Sharps & flats

Don't let songwriter Chris Cacavas play with guns.

Published October 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

The unofficial home page of self-deprecating singer/songwriter/guitarist Chris Cacavas includes a bio that, appropriately, reads like a lament. It bemoans the fact that, ever since his first LP was released in 1988, Cacavas has endured endless comparisons to Neil Young.

If the Los Angeles-born former sideman for Green on Red, Giant Sand and others really wants to avoid such comparisons, there are several things he could do differently than he has on his latest release, "Dwarf Star." For one thing, he could stop singing in such a plaintive, reedy, I-came-from-the-country-and-I-wish-I'd-stayed-there voice. He could stop describing his existential loneliness via driving metaphors, as he does on "Riverside Drive" and "Honking at Demons." Most of all, he could stop appearing on Neil Young tribute albums. His intense, minimalist rendering of "Tonight's the Night" (not included on "Dwarf Star") was a highlight of the most recent compilation, "This Note's for You, Too!"

If anyone making music today deserves to be compared to one of the finest songwriters ever to come out of Canada (and, believe me, that's a compliment), it's Chris Cacavas. On "Dwarf Star," his seventh album, he conducts a shotgun marriage of unaffected, bitingly emotional lyrics and dark, enigmatic melodies. (Most of Cacavas' earlier records are only available in Germany, where he has a cult following.) He dissolves the space between himself and the listener to create a feeling of intimacy, but leaves plenty of room for the listener to project his or her own images of heartbreak and melancholia.

All of the songs on "Dwarf Star" are originals, save for a cover version of "Someone to Pull the Trigger," the pop delight from Matthew Sweet's "Altered Beast" album. Although Cacavas' rendering shares the deceptively upbeat charm of the original, his weary voice sounds all too serious as he exhorts his lover to shoot.

Cacavas' talent for understated eloquence transforms songs like "Riverside Drive," which starts as a straightforward chronicle of an uneventful nighttime drive but changes by degrees into a drama of Hitchcockian proportions. Cacavas subtly shifts the listener's perspective of time and place. As the tension builds, he cries, "Did you ever hear a car scream at the top of its lungs?" By that point, the atmosphere is so fraught with isolation, loneliness and even paranoia that the question seems entirely rational.

Cacavas' dark side is somewhat awkwardly balanced by a childlike sense of wonder. On "I Like Lyle Lovett" he takes Lovett's bittersweet lyrics and
makes them innocent: "If I had a boat/We could sail all day/And he would make me laugh by the funny things he'd say." Maybe the title of "Dwarf Star" refers to Cacavas' inner child. If so, he had better make sure that his gun has a safety lock.

By Dawn Eden

Dawn Eden is a New York writer and music critic.


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