ALBUM REVIEW: BC Camplight – Shortly After Takeoff

BC Camplight

BC Camplight, aka Brian Christinzio, returns with a new album “Shortly After Takeoff” on 24th April via Bella Union. It is the final chapter of his ‘Manchester Trilogy’, following 2015’s “How To Die In The North” and 2018’s “Deportation Blues”. All three albums were created after the native Philadelphian had moved to Manchester. It will be his fifth release and is fired by his ongoing battle with mental illness. Stylistically, it delivers synth-pop, singer-songwriter classicism, power pop and 50s rock’n’roll, but all wrapped up in Christinzio’s imaginative and innovative musical stylings, his distinctive, flexible vocals and an honest, introspective approach to storytelling. Christinzio says his love of stylistic shifts is also linked to a, “pretty low attention span. I’m always stirring the pot, I never let it settle.” He describes the album as:

“An examination of madness and loss. I hope it starts a long overdue conversation. It’s important to stress that this isn’t a redemption story. I’m a guy who maybe lives a little hard and I’m in the thick of some heavy stuff. But as a result, I think I’ve made my best record.”

Christinzio has had a tough few years. Just days before “How To Die In The North” was released, he was deported and banned from the UK because of visa issues. Estranged from his new home, his girlfriend and his dog, unable to promote his album and back home with his parents, he sank deep. An Italian passport, care of his grandparents, eventually allowed him to re-settle in Manchester, but then just days before “Deportation Blues” was released, his father Angelo unexpectedly died. To make matters worse, he was then revisited by a neurological disorder after years in remission: “I see TV static, and it messes with how my brain interprets everything from sound to my own feelings.”

Shortly After Takeoff Album Art

“Shortly After Takeoff” is not just BC Camplight’s best record, it’s one of the best records you’ll hear this year. It is a fantastically crafted collection of songs that lyrically and musically create an alternative, immersive reality which lets you explore what it is like to live with mental illness. It does this in such clever and inventive ways, from the fake stand up routine in ‘Ghosthunting’ which challenges perception to the incessant interrupting voices in ‘Back to Work’ and the accompanying, piercing sound of a headache. The album bobs and weaves, building glorious melodic lifts amid perceptive lyrics and heapings of black comedy. Layers of beauty and angst constantly pull at each other, both trying to assert primacy but neither quite managing to win the tug-of-war. The ensuring battle is a fantastic aural adventure.

We had the pleasure of talking to Christinzio about the new album – the full interview is here – and he was very open and honest about his own challenges and fears during the album’s inception:

“This album is much more inward looking. I’ve always been really open about mental illness. This year has sort of been a perfect storm of darkness with me. After my dad died, I was on tour supporting Deportation Blues a lot so I didn’t have any time to deal with it really and then I got done touring and wanted to make this record, and everything just started to hit me. My brain doesn’t necessarily react to things in a healthy way. I just started getting all these awful symptoms that I had back when I was about 27 or so. Lots of red flags. I noticed myself starting to do weird things and acting in weird ways and I thought ‘Oh shit, I’ve been sort of dreading this moment’ and was fairly certain that I wasn’t going to be able to get this record out but I guess something in me kind of enabled it to happen”.

He’s not one for the ‘mad genius’ trope though, and doesn’t see his records as some sort of outlet for him to ‘deal with’ his mental illness. He sees this album about trying to open up the conversation about mental illness and make it a bit more real for people.

People talk about Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett and its all of that ‘mad genius’ thing that people think is quite cool. It’s so boring hearing that. I’m trying to take an opposite approach. I’m trying to make the conversation about mental illness real. And not this kind of overblown untouchable fantasy thing that people don’t understand. I can only imagine that if Brian Wilson or Syd Barrett had the choice that they would probably opt for not being ‘crazy”.

The album kicks off with recent single “I Only Drink When I’m Drunk”. The track starts with some dirty slide guitar that could have come straight out of Paris, Texas (the film). Like most of BC Camplight’s music, it is not a straightforward listen. There are lots of styles and sounds moving in and out of the mix. He describes “I Only Drink When I’m Drunk” as “Hank Williams on cough medicine being awoken by ferocious guitars”. Christinzio said that he didn’t want to explode in to this record as he had done on the last two releases but instead he wanted the tone here to be a “trudge through the wastelands”. There are some fine lyrics on the song including the line “I’m turning into something of a werewolf with no motivation”. Werewolves are well known for having no control over their metamorphosis so to not even be motivated do something you have no control over is quite a way to make a point about how difficult you are finding things. Of the track, Christinzio says:

“People that are struggling in life, be it from a stress, loss, or mental illness, are more likely to behave in self-destructive ways. The idea of only drinking when you’re drunk is the notion that sometimes we hurt ourselves because we are hurting. The verses reflect the feelings some of us have when we are plodding through our everyday lives. The choruses are what happens when these feelings get the best of us.”

The following track, “Ghosthunting”, starts with the sound of a stand up show where Christinzio, taking on the role of the comic, reels off a series of amusing ‘bits’ with canned audience laughter between each one until he says: “For the whole first half of this record, I thought I had a really bad disease. It turns out I’m just mentally ill” – a line that is met with absolute, uncomfortable silence from the audience. It’s a challenging listen and is one of the clever ways that Christinzio gets across the feeling of someone navigating the world with mental illness. He says that he was trying to figure out a way to put people in an alternate mind space before they actually heard the song. Placing this routine at the start of the song and creating that sense of discomfort is very clever and a way to make the listener have a real shift in perception. When the main part of the song finally kicks in, we get some beautiful harp along with Christinzio’s stunning falsetto vocals and lyrics involving a caterpillar with a Rachel Riley smile and a visit to the smoothie stand at the Arndale Centre. He is a master of the mundane and the absurd and placing them within fantastic tunes that don’t seem odd. The gorgeous falsetto segment is interrupted by a repetitive, eerie, intrusive, heavy musical refrain. This is an ongoing theme throughout: normality (or maybe peace) being constantly interrupted by unhelpful and unwelcome interventions.

Album stand out “Back to Work” comes in with a thumping, crunching bass line and angelic vocals over a banging refrain of “back to work, back to work” before switching to a beautiful and moreish melody and lyrics about Die Hard. The gear change between the repetitive refrain and the verse is absolutely gorgeous and the change in tempo between both parts is handled with immense skill; it’s like musical sorcery. When we spoke to Christinzio, he admitted that this was one of the few times where he had to sit down for a long time with mathematics to make it sound like it does. “That almost pushed me over the top. That was a good half a day of going ‘well, if it’s 55.5 BPM and if we’re adding the extra beat and then doubling it, etc, etc’ but it ended up working out”. Talking about the song, Christinzio says:

“That song is basically a reflection of my life, where you have things that are going along, almost predictable and almost happening as you would expect them to and then ‘BOOM’ almost out of nowhere, it’s like: ‘Fuck, it’s back and I’ve got to deal with this now’ and that’s the ‘back to work, back to work…’”.

“Cemetery Lifestyle” starts with some anguished sounding guitars and an equally anguished Christinzio screaming ‘I’m trying to think’ before moving into a power-pop styled groove that is reminiscent of Neo Wave era Silversun, especially the layered vocals of the chorus. The song has a slightly languorous feeling, like Christinzio just wants to get through it without being interrupted, which he manages until about ⅔ of the way through when some mumbling voices (including someone sounding like James Brown) crash in. Christinzio forces past the intrusion to make it to the end though.

“I Want To Be In The Mafia” is a beautiful Nilsson-esque number where Christinzio’s fantasises about being in the Mafia. It’s classic BC Camplight, odd juxtapositions of words and sounds that shouldn’t go together but, in Christinzio’s creative hands, sound like they were meant to be. The song sounds more like a touching tribute to a lover but in this case Christinzio is imagining what it would be like to be Henry Hill or Tony Soprano. In this version, the Bada Bing is transferred to a “chippy shop in Oldham”. There is a great lyric about Christinzio’s putting a hit out on his own brain which could only come from said brain! It’s a lovely, plaintive song which – fantasies of the mob and murder aside – is just beautiful.

The album’s title track, “Shortly After Takeoff”, is totally glorious and uplifting (for the most part), all big synths, rising melodies and Christinzio’s beautiful vocals. It would fair to say that his vocals on this album are probably his best ever – they are so flexible and sound just sublime. The way that the song rises from the verse into the chorus is just stunning (air-punchingly so). It’s full of chunky synths that sound like they were borrowed from any number of 80s cock rock tracks. The title refers to that feeling of being suddenly thwarted by what life throws at you. Christinzio said this song is at least in his top two favourites:

“Originally it was going to be a soul trumpet intro. When I was working out the song in the studio I just put on some 80s synth and put on the horn sound and people were like ‘when are you going to get the real horn guys’ in and. I said ‘I’m not, that’s staying’. I love the way the synth sounded and I love the really cool juxtapose to the next section which is very organic.”

“Arm Around Your Sadness”, with just Christinzio’s lovely vocals, some gentle piano and occasional little bits of sound getting thrown on to the palette (“Arms around your sadness, arms around your madness”) continues the recurring references to mental illness. “Born to Cruise” is a fun tune with a great lilting feeling and loads of Motown ‘do, doo, doo’s’ accompanying some killer lyrics – “I get my tyres from the wrong side of town, no one told me I had to write this shit down” and “I’ve had my indicator on since leaving Crewe. That explains the gestures in my rear view”. The album closes out with a touching tribute to Christinzio’s father. “Angelo” is a gorgeously tender 93-second eulogy – “a little fleeting moment for my dad. I wanted his name on the album, and something that sounded like a goodbye. It ends with the drums, like a heartbeat stopping…”

Although about 95% of the album was just Christinzio, he did have a bunch of friends and bandmates to help him, which included Adam Dawson (drums) and Francesca Pidgeon (backing vocals, sax, clarinet) and guests on cello and violin. Dawson and Pidgeon are also members of the current live BC Camplight, alongside Thom Bellini (guitar), Stephen Mutch (bass) and Luke Barton (synths, acoustic guitar). Although ostensibly a solo artists, Christinzio says his band (friends) have become more and more important to him:

“This time I got some band mates to come in to do little bits and bobs here and there. Pretty much on all of my records, outside of the drums, its like 90 something percent me tracking. I have my guitarist Thom come in and do a couple of dive bombs on the guitar and things like that. Francesca Pidgeon, who is in my band, played the sax, helped with acoustic guitar and did some vocals too. But as I’ve gotten older I’ve realised that even though I’m sort of a solo artist, my band has become more and more important to me as friends and people that I spend months and months with on the road so I thought it was about time to get them more involved”.

Christinzio couldn’t tour “How To Die In The North” because of his deportation, but the shows following “Deportation Blues” played to increasingly larger audiences. He had an extensive tour planned in support of “Shortly After Takeoff” but the current global pandemic has cut across that. You can see planned live dates on BC Camplight’s website but these are obviously subject to change. You can also catch him every Friday night on a Facebook livestream at 7pm from his kitchen. It’s a whole lot of fun and a taster for the BC Camplight live experience which will hopefully be fully up and running once we are all released from our current lockdown.

“Shortly After Takeoff” is an album of intense honesty, brilliant lyrics, gallows humour and killer melodies. You will struggle to find a better album this year.

You can pre-order “Shortly After Takeoff” via Bella Union now.

“Shortly After Takeoff” tracklist:

1. I Only Drink When I’m Drunk

2. Ghosthunting

3. Back To Work

4. Cemetery Lifestyle

5. I Want To Be In The Mafia

6. Shortly After Takeoff

7. Arm Around Your Sadness

8. Born To Cruise

9. Angelo

Next INTERVIEW: BC Camplight - Shortly After Takeoff

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