Cindy Lee Berryhill was a founding member of the “anti folk” movement in New York in the 1980’s before moving to California and delivering two albums that delved into the genius and naiveté of Brian Wilson. Garage Orchestra and Straight Outta Maryville married her quirky songwriting to an equally quirky use of percussion, woodwind and strings not dissimilar to Tom Waits’ discovery of Harry Partch. The Adventurist is her first release in a decade, a decade in which much of her time was dedicated to her husband, the famed rock writer Paul Williams as he succumbed to an early dementia before dying in 2013. As is often the case and hurtful as it may seem a release from dementia frees loved ones to carry on, no longer the agony of trying to tease out a sense of recognition from the afflicted, a graceful end to a cruel disease. And so it was with Berryhill who, after Williams’ passing slowly returned to live performance and ultimately was able to record The Adventurist, dedicated to her late husband (and lovers everywhere) and which is a collection of songs described by her as “songs that reflected the love I had for him.”
The album revisits the Garage Orchestra era, the songs simple at heart but adorned with a variety of sounds, some exotic (strings, vibraphone, marimba, horns and glockenspiel), some mundane (including a dishwasher and a wall heater) but throughout Berryhill offers some fabulous melodies while her excellent vocals are often enhanced by some fine harmonies from friends such as Syd Straw. The lyrics deserve delving into, opaque as they are in not being simple love songs or memories apart from the fairly direct realities of caring for a loved one on the sting driven baroque pop of Somebody’s Angel. There are glimpses of the early rush of a new relationship within the lush guitars of Contemplating The infinite (In A Kiss) while the title song is a heady tumble into the unknown as Berryhill delivers an almost surrealistic fantasy that’s half sixties spy story and half safari, all contained within a dizzying spiral of strings and things, hammered plucked or picked.
There’s so much here to explore and the album repays repeated listening. There’s an immediate attraction to the opening song, American Cinematography, with its Beatles’ like guitar refrain (although the piano gets wackier as the song progresses) and I Like Cats/You Like Dogs is a glorious slice of crunchy pop folk pumped up with magnificent scrabbled guitar dashing through the horns towards the end. Less immediate but ultimately as satisfying is the seductive swell of Deep Sea Fishing which floats on a fuzzy keyboard riff and the towering Gravity Falls which is like slo mo grunge. Towards the end Berryhill strips her feelings down on the orchestral pop of An Affair Of The Heart, a melancholic yet defiant song which can be read as a farewell to her husband which pulses with the heartbeat of LA writers such as Gene Clark. The album closes with an instrumental revisit of Deep Sea Fishing retitled Deep Sea Dishing with Berryhill’s guitars set above the repetitive cycle of a dishwasher that mimics the sound of surf, a fine nod to one of her heroes and a reminder that at times The Adventurist recalls the minor classic that was Brian Wilson and Van Dykes Parks’ collaboration on Orange Crate Art.
The Adventurist ultimately is a triumphant return to the arena for Ms. Berryhill. It’s multilayered, challenging and exciting, her personal story transformed into art. A catharsis perhaps but it’s an album that would be worthy of the forensic pen of Paul Williams, the doyen of rock writing and a very fine memorial.