on Bernson has the uncanny talent of having a voice like Jeff Tweedy—a smoother Leonard Cohen, warm in its narrative speakability. Starvation Under Orange Trees is a lengthy, at times bold collection of soundtrack and rumination. It contains the recorded renditions of music for the Actors Theatre of San Francisco’s Of Mice and Men and later arrangements grown out of a studio flood and, following that, a year’s productive hiatus. Bernson is helped by a small army of musicians including Nate Query of the Decemberists and songwriter Enzo Garcia, who has also played with Jolie Holland. Together, they create deep contexts in soft interludes and proper songs, most of which hearken back to “the refugees of Steinbeck’s shanty towns.”
Leaving aside the concept for a moment, Starvation Under Orange Trees is fondly reminiscent of mid-career Wilco, whose fans may find more pleasure in this album than Wilco’s latest. The smooth, honeyed quality of the production is full of understated drums, peaceful guitars, and friendly piano twinkles, peppered with the windy whistles Andrew Bird is known for. A well-arranged and sophisticated later track, “Palace Flophouse,” demonstrates how this insanely friendly formula can also achieve something more substantial in the listener’s ear. “Folksy” (what, because it has an acoustic guitar in it?) music is always inviting but only half the time is it actually interesting or new. Bernson is exceedingly interested in slow tempos, but there are simple ways of keeping our attention, like by adding melodic lines later in a song that play off an already established formula (the piano does this often).
Bernson, mulling over the skeletal pieces from the Steinbeck production, seems to have benefited from the extra time, and by glorifying the old he’s managed to make something new of an easy, breezy genre. The context of each song is still seeped in Steinbeck, such as the full-fledged experience of “The Story of Lee,” with its terrifying, echoic chorus, “No one’s going to take me home” (taking East of Eden as inspiration). The more wholesome and familiar major-key descents of “Not Just Mine,” directly following “Lee” are lovely complements.
Does anyone listen to this kind of music anymore? Wilco, M. Ward, and a handful of others do very well in this genre, but whether they’re always—or still—pushing their own boundaries is another matter. So Bernson’s foray into theater—and back to indie—deserves applause. His imaginative ballads are exemplary of a rare, yet increasingly popular, trend of creating an entire fictional universe. Bernson’s interest is not just Steinbeck stories but his invented locale, Ray’s Vast Basement, a 100,000-year-old cave. But he is still really dependent on literature and art’s precedents, and in a more obvious way than most musicians.
The fuzzy-blanket pleasure of “How Through Sacrifice Danny’s Friends Gave a Party” is utterly contemporary but hinges on history (Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat). These songs may teach personal lessons, but the inspiration comes mostly from the outside, and the outside that has passed. They achieve clairvoyance of the usual love, loss, etc., through stories true and made-up. “Black Cotton,” too, leans on someone else’s story; Bernson is just the vessel—a gesture that only fosters a more integral dialogue between art in its most general, umbrella-term form.