The Suitcase Junket
Katie here, and as always, there’s no place I’d rather be. (Sometimes I type “Katie here” and in my head I’m singing the Cheers theme song— because it truly is nice to go where everybody knows your name.) I spend a lot of my life thinking about thinking. I constantly approach art not just to enjoy it, but as a new way to think. Good visual art brings me into a new world where I have to think about artistic choice. Good music can build a scene like architecture springing up around you— but you have to learn how to think about the way music and lyrics build those structures, and realize that those songs build different structures for different people. Last weekend, Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie were in town, and now I can’t stop thinking about how volume and distortion can make a regular sound feel quiet and different— sometimes haunting, sometimes a relief.
The act I have the pleasure of introducing today, The Suitcase Junket, isn’t a metal act— far from it— but one-man band (literally) Matthew Lorenz sprung to mind immediately when I sat down to think about the concert I’d just seen. He’s a master of using levels to his advantage, and he’s followed blues and folk greats when it comes to songwriting and tone. That talent necessitates an understanding of levels— the ability to take your audience by the hand and lead them through a story or a moment.
But Lorenz does that all out of a suitcase.
Once again, I feel the need to promise that I’m not joking. Perhaps “out of a suitcase” is the wrong phrase. “From on top of a suitcase” is definitely true, at least some of the time. From his handlebar mustache to the Jack White-Bob Dylan-Tom Waits slurry vocals, Lorenz is pulling a lot of sounds together, all at once. He’s even able to, in fact, perform overtone singing, which is where someone sings two different notes at the same time. For example, in this video for “Eileen”—
—he makes a humming or buzzing sound. The first several times I listened to it, I couldn’t tell exactly where the noise was coming from. Was this a weird controlled feedback? Some kind of amp trick? But he’s making that sound with his mouth. Of course it couldn’t be a foot pedal: he’s using his feet to operate the drums (one of which is the suitcase he’s sitting on— and the way that specific drum sound is made is by putting a child’s shoe on the end of the kick). It’s actually called “polyphonic overtone singing,” and it literally means he’s singing two notes at once.
It sounds like I might be describing a Wes Anderson character, doesn’t it? (If you’re currently rushing to play your copy of The Royal Tenenbaums, I understand. I, myself, am maybe one musical montage away from an Anderson movie— a glittery cane, tinted glasses, braces on my fingers that could double for brass knuckles, rock shirts & shoes— so I very much consider this a compliment.)
The trick about The Suitcase Junket is, no matter what you think after reading about everything he’s doing at once, whether you thought the suitcase thing was a gimmick or not, Lorenz has done two things that immediately negate that.
First, he’s a damned good songwriter. And second…don’t you want to see how he does it? You can’t tell me it’s not amazing. Before I realized how much of a one-man-band The Suitcase Junket actually was, I’d already decided I loved their new record. You can imagine my surprise when I went to YouTube.
For example, his new record, Mean Dog, Trampoline, borrows from blues and folk but the production puts him in line with music like Rayland Baxter and Nathaniel Rateliff (though not vocally: he’s got his own sound there, almost like his voice is the broken-bottle slide that he used in the “Eileen” video). The lead single off the record is called “Everything I Like” and the official video shows a sense of humor and a marked lack of preciousness, even though with a record this good, one wouldn’t necessarily begrudge him those qualities.
You don’t have to, though. The man in the official video very much lines up with the slightly younger man on the suitcase singing “Eileen.” In a song where the first declaration— and Lorenz is at his best when he’s declaring— is that “everything [he] likes happens at night,” a video that really exposes the day is an interesting choice. (Full disclosure: I actually laughed out loud in a VERY crowded coffee shop the first time I saw the van roll away. I really can’t recommend you watch this enough. I’m of the “music videos are still important/iconic” age, and I was delighted to find that something in Lorenz is also of that opinion.) Also, if you know much about me, you know this stanza was an easy way to grab my attention: theft AND Billy Joel? Be still my heart.
Now, everybody's talking 'bout some new sound—
Funny, but it's still rock 'n' roll to me.
And I spent all my money on a brand new pair of speakers,
So I stole that old Billy Joel CD.
I’d be selling the song short if I acted like those were the best lyrics. They aren’t. But his songwriting is almost like buckshot: it’s sprayed with such scattershot excellence that I bet every person who listens to his songs has a different favorite line.
I want to show off a little bit of what he can do (that isn’t just pandering to my interests) so these are the lines following the lovely stanza in honor of the Piano Man:
…the dawn horizon never feels quite right.
But once the song sinks in again,
Now all the words is dark and dim,
And everybody's dressed up for the weekend.
Oh, and the radio hits your favorite song,
Three-and-a-half minutes never felt so long,
And it makes you fell all thick and strong to sing it.
He’s using all sorts of different techniques here: cross-sensory imagery (synaesthesia), metrical patterns that occasionally vary to need extra syllables (which speeds up your listen of the song… right before he uses a slightly shorter pattern to say “three-and-a-half minutes never felt so long”), and references to other songs, even fleetingly, make the song feel worn in like… well, I was going to say a good pair of shoes, but let’s say more like a shoe that’s been used as a mallet for a kickdrum…which, by the way, should be why they call it a kick drum.
The same van is immediately prominent in this video, too: Lorenz is nothing if not committed and consistent, which is one of the things that keeps his ability to play everything magical and not a gimmick. If he faltered, even once, people would write this off. Instead, I guarantee his performance will have people with their mouths hanging open in stunned surprise for a lot of the show. But God, is this video cool— because it shows you how he builds his set-up. If anything I’ve said sounds unbelievable, watch him literally unpack at the beginning of this video. It’s nothing short of incredible. Of course, that doesn’t take the entire space of a video, so… you get a few surprise guests after that. (Well: I call them guests. More like… personas there to add a sincerity to The Suitcase Junket. Remember earlier when I said he might sound like a character but isn’t? This is a good way to explain what I said, visually.)
This song is built like a solid foundation: every line could stand alone, but they all create something stronger. Some of the first stanza:
…so she follows every longman into luxury and laughter
But it leads her into loneliness…
No one would believe the photos of before and after
Least of all herself, ‘cos denial’s a bitter master…
Every part of this song is catchy but the ephemeral image of a dandelion crown really brings home how deeply the character being described is lying to herself. I love that he gives us the parts of her that someone might actually know, instead of describing her completely omnisciently— she’s not invisible. She’s even spoken with the narrator: “She told me that she loved everybody, I know— I gotta turn it away…”.
Overall, if you had the sound off on a song by The Suitcase Junket, you might be swept up in the spectacle. I’d go as far to say you SHOULD. But don’t waste your time— turn it up, let it wash over you, and listen to some of the best new Americana-blues-tinged rock that I’ve heard in a long time. Oh— and you better book your airline tickets, because he’ll be playing Underwater Sunshine Fest in November!