Eric Balkey,
Negotiations & Compromises
(Hudson Harding, 2001)

I'm feeling a bit awkward introducing Erik Balkey's Negotiations & Compromises. Some albums are easy to discuss; they beg to be debated and passed around, a quick item of conversation. Unfortunately for my review deadline, some are much more intimate experiences, setting off interactions between listener and music that shouldn't be possible with a prerecorded medium. It's a hard dissecting a song that climbs into your head and starts rearranging things.

It would be enough to credit the lyrics. Using a very sparse vocabulary, they turn their subjects just enough to look completely different. "Two Years" is a love song to a house, or possibly a farewell tune to the past, as a man tries to convince himself that his life is finally going to change. Most of these songs are stories at the midpoint, like the trucker in "Miles Roll." Because there's no clear ending, the stories they tell are far longer lived. "Still Here" wouldn't have half its power if the doubting lover were absolutely certain he wouldn't leave.

These are stories of chronic uncertainty, but not without promise. Everything hinges on the behavior of the players, from the tired waitress in the title song to the recovering addict in "I Quit."

While the songs are fine enough to stand as spoken poetry, Balkey's voice changes them into something more intriguing. Intimate rather than grand, singing quietly so that the listener is urged to lean in closer. It sounds like the voice of a friend in the last hours of an all-nighter who have grown relaxed and tired enough to share thoughts and dreams exactly as they well up without any editing. Of course no one in such a half-dreaming state is ever this lyrical, but this is how those 3 a.m. conversations should sound. This quiet, confiding tone is sometimes hard to listen to, because it's a little embarrassing to hear someone so exposed. But it's also comforting, sweetening the sometimes hard story in the music.

Negotiations & Compromises certainly isn't party music. It's too much company in its own right. Listen to it sometime when your own thoughts are wandering, and you're not too uncomfortable thinking about compromises in your own life. Listening to someone else tell their story, they might not seem so bad.

[ by Sarah Meador ]
Rambles: 3 August 2002