Here’s a whole bunch of ways to think about “Riddles,” the third album from Ed Schrader’s Music Beat and a considerate diversion from the simpler, drum and bass and scream set-up of the once-minimalist duo turned maximalist semi-trio: The Scott Walker album that would’ve come between “Climate Of Hunter” and “Tilt.” What you imagine the melt face Peter Gabriel album would sound like based on the cover alone. The second best TV On The Radio album. A especially strong Twin Shadow record. Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock” only you know, fun sometimes. If David Bowie made a response record to The Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls.” If all the CDs-marked-down-to-99-cents-in-a-record-store’s “Used – Avant Garde” section were converted to binary code and then plugged into some “make an album” algorithm. A regular ol’ rollicking Ed Schrader record remixed by Dan Deacon (who is a producer and co-writer on “Riddles”) then put back into Schrader’s and bassist Devlin Rice’s hands where these two guys who’ve been exploring a kind of ruminative primitivism for years really do their thing and find the freedom in too-much-ness and open-heartedness and make a masterpiece, pretty much.
Let’s go with that last one. And then, let’s skip ‘Dunce’, that staggering first single—a Suicide ‘Frankie Teardrop’-ish strut that you’ve undoubtedly heard already—because it’s a bit of a menacing fake-out and start with ‘Seagull’ instead. ‘Seagull’ recalls one of those low-key, kinda post-punk-meets-Gene Pitney songs that popped up a couple times on 2010’s “Jazz Mind” and 2014’s “Party Jail,” but here, Schrader’s croon gets sampled and looped and electronic clicks and pops jump around it and he starts singing in between a sample of himself and the song escalates, more parts doing more things, finally tilting towards Schrader’s Ren from “Ren & Stimpy” bellow, and just wow.
There is a sense that “Riddles” is about getting further out of one’s head. The album comes out at a moment when people locally and nationally are circling the wagons. The country is just fucked while Baltimore seems torn between scared law-and-order lunatics and those who increasingly comprehend the significance of radical, empathetic change. Two songs on “Riddles” about Baltimore, underdog laments twisted into rousing calls to arms, voice the latter: ‘Rust,’ a sequel of sorts to ‘Rats’ off “Jazz Mind,” is a celebration of the alleged ugliness of the city and others like it (Knoxville gets a shout out) screamed until it becomes a chant in praise of shabby nobility. And ‘Kid Radium,’ where a loose, krautrock-ish instrumental is paired with Ed’s imagist poem about Baltimore with references to Midway East, loosie cigarettes, military occupation, Camden Yards, and Memorial Stadium, and ultimately recasts the cities’ lead-poisoned youths into sci-fi superheroes—this howling late-’80s Rod Stewart, mid-’70s Can combination, their theme music.
Recall that Ed Schrader’s Music Beat began as just Ed putting it out there—a shirtless man at the Copycat beating on a drum screaming about sugar as the Beat’s Maura Callahan lovingly described him to me the other day—and then Rice joined, sending some additional signals through closed-circuit rock n’ roll. ESMB remained compelling, like so many Wham City products, because it held on tight—a tragically optimistic sort of escapism was the default Wham City approach for a while. “Riddles,” though, feels like a letting go; it’s trying to be ready for everything.
The title track has that distinctive, all-hands-on-deck Dan Deacon dance stomp that is becoming as identifiable and malleable as a Baltimore club break (just as fitting to send this song to another level or for Eze Jackson to rap over if you’ve heard ‘Rappin’ Over Dan Deacon’) though here it’s prefaced by some Saturday afternoon at Nordstrom’s piano over which Schrader unspools free-associative suburban ennui, singing about “smok[ing] Camels in your mother’s car” and “lukewarm Sprite.” He sounds like he’s singing of memories sucked out of him under hypnosis, too small to recall without some help, packed with meaning.
On ‘Tom,’ a heartbreaking song with a stiff upper lip about Schrader’s stepfather’s death (and also about Schrader favorite David Bowie, who also died, and something or other to do with Bowie’s Major Tom character), Schrader sings (he doesn’t shout, he doesn’t ham it up in-quotes Sinatra-style either) over glum piano and strings, “I am running to him, I feel lost and adored/ Are you running through me?/ I kind of lost my form.” He conveys the terrifying way that you can be sent back to childhood by upheaval, and how powerlessness, melancholy, and grief can sometimes free you too if you’re ready for them.
“Riddles” is open, alive, and scared. And like Deacon’s “America” or Blaqstarr’s “King Of Roq,” the most comparable records in terms of successful sea changes with potentially seismic scene impact, you leave this one invigorated and daunted. You maybe didn’t quite know Schrader had it in him. And how “it” manifests is consistently surprising. “It” here might even mean following up devastating dead stepdad track ‘Tom’ with ‘Culebra,’ a sincere love song full of touching novelistic details about a trip to Puerto Rico that must mean so much to Schrader that we can only partially parse, delivered ridiculously—the way say, Damon Albarn might howl out ‘Escape (The Piña Colada Song)’. You get to the real however you gotta get there, right?