Thomas Comerford, formerly of Iowa City and also the band Kaspar Hauser, lives in Chicago now. Comerford stands out from the crowd of rootsy singer-songwriters by virtue of his outrageously tuneful songwriting and instinct for the perfect arrangement. He sings in a full-throated baritone, his voice touched by a subtle vibrato. His songs are, like Donnie and Marie Osmond, a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll.
II is—as the name suggests—his second album as a solo artist. The production of this record is completely over the top, in a good way. The cooing backup singers, the banjo and pedal steel, the strings on the fade-out fit his songs like a tailored tropic-weight suit. Comerford may be ‘our guy,’ in his feed hat and epic sideburns, but he’s going up against the Eagles, Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks and holding his own. There’s even some of the Grateful Dead’s lush ensemble sound to songs like “Silt and Dust.”
I said of his last record Archive + Spiral that he was working from Lou Reed’s playbook; II goes for the other coast and has a fully realized ’70s California sound. This is music that would be perfect for sparking a doobie in Topanga Canyon, but watch out for the frostbite hiding inside the mellow buzz. In “Eternal Return” he sings “I can start drinking again bite into oblivion, until I’m gone and everything’s wrong.” But the song is otherwise so sunny that the bleakness of the words sneaks right past your defenses.
In “Target” he sings “How did we let it get to that? How do we not be a target?” It captures the feeling you’re being let down by the people who have you in their cross-hairs. “I see an actor on the TV, paid to tell me I need some television.”
Thomas Comerford’s songs are all about staring at the void, but with enough humor and human warmth to avoid being sucked in. “I can’t erase, nothing changes,” he says in “Prefer Not To.” It’s a bitter admission of powerlessness, but then the words stop and the song concludes with rising major chords and backup vocalists singing “sha la la la.” The music takes over and redeems the bleakness of the lyric, which may be the whole point: words fail, music abides.