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Love in the Ruins: Tav Falco's Cabaret of Daggers


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The first track of Tav Falco's latest platter, Cabaret of Daggers (Org Music), opens with his stark, isolated voice intoning the song's guitar/bass motif, until at last the band falls in behind him. It's telling: the entire work evokes a fugitive in a hostile world, absentmindedly humming as he makes his way on the lam, watching from a box car. Yes, there is plenty of cabaret here, but it seems to come via a fever dream.

The tango of that first track is imbued with the cabaret spirit, but many surprises emerge after that. As the band (and, significantly, the words “Panther Burns” are nowhere to be found on the LP) deftly navigates the stylistic shifts into folk blues, R&B, and jazz, the sense of romance in ruins is never far away. “You're sitting and watching the destruction of mankind,” Falco declaims in the standout original, “New World Order Blues.” A frisson of anguish emerges as that image colors even the tenderest ballads.

Tav Falco
  • Tav Falco
As for the latter, Falco has always famously walked the land of crooners as if it was paved with eggshells and nails. From “Drifting Heart” to “The World We Knew,” his back catalog is littered with such decadence. (The latter is reprised here on the digital release, never straying far from the template laid down in the 1987 recording produced by Alex Chilton). As always, the point here is not purity of pitch, but character. His heartfelt, at times bewildered, delivery can, as they say, sell a song. He sells you on the drama, more convincingly than many a lounge lizard.

Having said that, Falco's singing here sounds more assured than ever, even on the challenging melody of the Mel Tormé and Robert Wells chestnut, “Born to Be Blue.” He also carries off the nightmarish gem, “Strange Fruit,” by virtue of his unique diction. The culmination of this may be “Red Vienna,” a hushed waltz evoking the revolutionary zeitgeist of that city a century ago, complete with haunting operatic vocals by Kallen Esperian.

Of course, Falco pulls off the earthier numbers, including Jolie Holland's “Old Fashioned Morphine” and Hammie Nixon's “Sugar Mama Blues,” with the appropriate grit. The band (featuring the refined piano, organ, and accordion work of Francesco D'Agnolo) is equally adept at all these styles. Guitarist/producer Mario Monterosso, who cowrote a few of these, and composed the brilliant crime jazz track “Master of Chaos Theme,” helps keep his groovy band of Italians on point. The one misstep, to these ears, is a rendering of “Sally Go 'Round the Roses,” much beloved by old Hellcats fans, which sports highly processed drums straight out of an 80s disco. It's a courageous move, nonetheless. Such stylistic leaps would prove nigh impossible for many other singers. Falco and company make it look easy. 

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