Ray’s Vast Basement Starvation Under Orange Trees

[Howells Transmitter; 2007]

Rating: 2.5/5

Styles: off-kilter folk, cinematic folk
Others: M. Ward, Animal Collective, Sufjan Stevens story hour, a local John Steinbeck reader’s circle

John Steinbeck was one of the most stirring documenters of American history in the 20th century. He’s a novelist we don’t shy our pride away from. He was a durable, affecting artist. Writing songs to soundtrack his canon — a shelf of unmistakably American volumes with bookends like pilasters — is no easy task. Despite the clear challenge, Jon Bernson (a.k.a. Ray's Vast Basement) attempts it with Starvation Under Orange Trees.

Bernson was commissioned by the Actors Theatre of San Francisco to put music to Steinbeck’s slim classic Of Mice and Men; he obliged. Drawing inspiration not just from Of Mice and Men, but also Cannery Row, The Grapes of Wrath, and Tortilla Flat, Bernson runs the gamut with his instruments, striving to match the majesty of Steinbeck’s themes. One may ask what qualifies Ray’s Vast Basement to take on this project. Well, they’ve experienced firsthand such American rites of passage as salvaging through a flood (their studio was soaked through, tape unharmed) and mining something from somewhere (both mineral and sound). Still, Starvation Under Orange Trees falls short.

Steinbeck was revered for his rich and colorful portrayals of American struggle and those who endeavored through it, their elbow grease permanently staining the landscape. His words were constructed like car engines, both intimate and intrinsic. Jon Bernson and Ray’s Vast Basement don’t come close. The songs, though crafted carefully and treated with tenderness, are bland and lifeless. They need some grime — a half moon of dirt under the fingertips. The dryness of the songs rivals that of a Dust Bowl irrigation ditch. Some moments flare towards near-success, but overall, it’s a stunted effort. These are drawbacks Steinbeck’s work never suffered from, unless of course you’re an eighth grader reading The Pearl.

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