09/12/2011 04:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

After Aesthetics: Gabriel Kahane's Where Are The Arms

On September 13, the composer/singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane unleashes what is typically considered one of the trickiest of musical creatures -- the sophomore album. Conventional thought might dictate that an artist has two options: one, continue with the proven dynamic of the first album, but with added compositional devices or embellishments that reveal a deepening of the craft, or two, make an album that to a certain extent disregards the particular expectations brought by the debut in favor of a more liberating sonic palette. Kahane's new album Where are the Arms succeeds at doing both.

With his early Five Songs EP and then the self-titled debut full-length, the gifted musician established himself as a piano man whose earnest baritenor vocals redolent of musical theater were buttressed with intricate chord progressions and mixed meter. On Where are the Arms, Kahane superimposes this winning formula onto guitar-centric instrumentation, but not before reminding listeners of his credentials on piano with two ballads. Arguably the strongest song of the set, opener "Charming Disease" is a delicately constructed cautionary tale about alcohol addiction, followed by "Merritt Parkway," which could be interpreted as an ominous and wistful prequel to the tragedy of the previous song. Here Kahane reinforces his genius for relating little romantic moments that welcome sentiment without taking on unwanted clichés ("At a seaside town we picked at our lunch/Talking of family, the books that we'd read/Back in the car, too nervous to touch/She emptied a bottle of water on my head").

Then suddenly comes "Parts of Speech," a clever alt-rock song replete with dizzying syncopation obscuring the straightforward 4/4 time, which then segues into shifty mixed meter before settling on a chorus that is as "Top 40" as you're likely to hear from Kahane. Elsewhere, the splashy pop of "Calabash and Catamaran" -- with effervescent guitar bubbling and an infectious groove -- disguises the artist's ever-present penchant for chamber music instrumentation and progressive approach to rhythm. Such moments of expanse and compositional showmanship are interjected into a set of more intimate and introspective songs like "Icebox," Winter Song," and the gorgeously simple and hymn-like title track.

Perhaps the best amalgamation of Kahane's effectively intricate arrangements and the newly acquired electric guitar sheen occurs on "Last Dance," a melancholic portrait of a new widow, or perhaps an abandoned lover ("She takes her bundle of pills, she poaches her egg and eats it/And feels his slight impression like crushed pillows hold the shape of a body after nights of sleep and shadows"). The song begins with a guitar-backed "recitative" before launching into an off-kilter pseudo-waltz in 7/8 time. This is Kahane at his best: storytelling that embraces empathy and psychological insight without heavy-handed judgments, and music-making that is utterly immune to predictability.

Ultimately, Gabriel Kahane has made his "pop" record. Gone are the overt fugues and chorales, the somber instrumental interludes, and the pervasive sense of indebtedness to the classical music tradition that were prevalent on his debut full-length album. For those who have grown accustomed to that highly stylized art song sensibility, Where Are the Arms may require an unexpected adjustment. For all of its surface accessibility, this sophomore release makes for a challenging listen, with Kahane's songwriting paradigm firmly intact.

Where are the Arms seems in part to be a reaction to the emergence of the "indie classical" aesthetic, with its admixture of "serious" historical tradition and the contemporary pop medium. While Kahane is undoubtedly part of this milieu, there is a cautiousness with which he embraces his role within it. When I asked him in January 2010 if he considered his music to be art song, he replied:

The question we really have to ask ourselves is: "Does the music transcend aesthetics?" Because I think very often what independent music is preoccupied with is an aesthetic over architectural integrity, and that's the thing that I think is really worrisome, where journalists are often interested in critiquing an aesthetic rather than critiquing quality--the nuts and bolts of the music.

Where are the Arms is available for purchase at the bandcamp website.