Rising up 

Tom Catmull's newest shines light into the dark

It's not that Tom Catmull never writes dark songs—his 1998 solo album, East of Opportunity, is far from devoid of minor key chords. But even dark-themed titles like "Addiction" and "Getaway" are the kinds of songs you can drink your morning coffee to before heading out the door, whistling contentedly. Catmull's new solo album, Words & Malady, is decidedly duskier. You might drink your coffee to these tunes, but you'll probably feel the need to idle in your chair, letting the words soak in. You might tear up. You might wish you were drinking whiskey instead.

"I went through a personal rough patch—not being too specific," Catmull says. "It's nothing that other humans don't go through, but it was definitely something that was a struggle. Most of these songs are written during that time. So I was a little darker on this one than I have been." He laughs. "I'm a pretty light-and-poppy, happy guy and I think a lot of my songs over the last 17 or 18 years have kind of reflected that. And this one is a little less so."

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In fiction, poetry and songwriting it's never safe—or fair—to assume that the writing is autobiographical. The landscapes of Words & Malady reveal stories about heartbreak accompanied by acoustic guitar. They are neither pedestrian—as some earnest songwriting can be—nor are they the straightforward, tear-in-your-beer George Jones types. The opening track, "Be Mine," begins with what sounds like electric feedback before a lonely trumpet, played by Amy Martin, wails. Catmull sings, "It started out as innocent as hearing lovers kiss in darkened taverns/ while minding your own./ But when your ears fill twice with chance encounters, a charming third and you'll someday find it, stained to your bones./ It is particular about company and it sparks the flame of jealousy/ in those you hold close./ And it has no fear of poverty, the bottle or solace/ you see, you are what it needs most."

The "it" here is a ghost that haunts the record. There is this constant feeling of searching around in the dark with these songs—an attempt to get at the heart of the matter. "My life is a rainbow of all of the colors," Catmull sings in "Blue." "Save the one from a box of Crayola, a divorce of the green and yellow tones." Listening to these songs is like trying to make sense of dreams. The images don't always tell a linear story, but they shake you up in ways that are difficult to pinpoint.

All that said, Words & Malady isn't depressing. There's "Another Heart," for instance, where Catmull sings about his old beat-up truck and how he now has a minivan. "It's got cardboard in one window/ and if it gets stolen, I hope that they know it'll need a series of jumpstarts," he sings. Though even that track doesn't quite escape heartache, as the title implies.

What makes this album not a cry-fest is a thread of goodwill and hope that runs through the lyrics. There are plenty of warm chords, moments of self-deprecating humor, twang, guitar plucking and other signs of life going right. The instrumentation is also key and features local stalwarts. Catmull and Travis Yost, who recorded and mixed the album, have added subtle but effective flourishes here and therethe trumpets being one. All of the Clerics—Catmull's backing band that includes Yost, Gibson Hartwell and John Sporman—contribute to some of the songs and Bethany Joyce adds cello. The anthemic "Some People" is co-written by Caroline Keys of Stellarondo.

New things are on the rise for Catmull. Now that lead guitarist Hartwell has left the Clerics, Catmull's bar band is in transition. He's playing lead guitar now—"It's terrifying," he admits, "but fun"—and the group is embracing straightforward rock over its past rootsy sound. And with a built-in audience, it shouldn't be hard to make the leap.

"It's like an embarrassment of riches," Catmull says. "We're able to put a show together in front of people—and that gets to be our job."

As for solo efforts, Words & Malady might be part of a transition, too. One never wishes hard times on someone like Tom Catmull. But if he creates anything close to the cathartic Words & Malady again, we would all be lucky to hear it.

Tom Catmull plays a CD release show at the Crystal Theatre Fri., Nov. 8, at 8 PM. Doors open at 7:30 PM. $12, available at Rockin Rudy's.

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