A faint sigh from the melodica before the band joins in. They're playing a slow march, treading gingerly. Everything is sparse – piano, organ, guitar, drums and double bass – all adding up to the restrained suggestion of a potential wall of sound while playing as little as possible.
A half-minute in, the great Bob Furgo's violin takes over with a tune that's equally Irish folk and La vie en rose, instantly placing us in that American/European world he used to evoke on those old Leonard Cohen records. “I'm the paintbrush, not the painter,” Georg Altziebler sings softly, setting the tone for ten song-shaped stories that appear to tell themselves without effort. “I am just the singer, not the song / All I really did was sing along,” he deadpans. It's a neat play on an old cliché, using the familiar as an elegant entrance to an original vision.
“I'm gonna take Avalon to Landers Brew,” Altziebler sings on “When The Lights Go Down,” name-checking the road that leads to the bar where he – on guitar, harp and vocals – and Heike – on vocals, keys, theremin and accordion – have played many a show on a small semi-circular stage. We might be in a film noir (“Wash the blood away from your fingernails / Get rid of the gun on Sunflower Trail”) or in the middle of a climate change-induced apocalypse. For all of its local references, this is far too surreal to be a folk record. Rather, it inhabits “a secret parallel world behind the clouds,” in the words of “Beautiful Disarray.”
While their previous long-player Dorado took them to the Culver City studio location of producer Joe Henry, the new album Solitary Company was recorded mainly in the very landscape referenced in the lyrics – inside a Red Barn at the end of a dirt track – a place filled with lovingly restored vintage amps, keyboards and recording gear by its owner and the album’s co-producer, Gar Robertson.
There's a Ferris Wheel spinning underground, a couple gambling all their money at the roulette table on “11 & 9” (the date of Heike and Georg's actual wedding anniversary), the midsummer night's magic of “The Waterlily & The Dragonfly,” and a couple seen making love from the windows of New York City's Carlton Arms Hotel in the album's eerie title track. It all ends in the haunting “Remember Me,” the story of an old fisherman left behind by his family.
Not many records manage to take the listener to so many places with such subtle tones and gestures. At Son of the Velvet Rat's California gigs you'll see eccentric desert-dwellers mouthing their lyrics back at them. They have become an integral part of the Joshua Tree music scene, which holds this mysteriously charismatic couple of Austrian immigrants in increasingly high regard. On the evidence of Solitary Company, it's easy to see why.