The first cut on Mercy Choir Sings in the Traditional Rock and Roll Style — which celebrates its release Friday evening at Three Sheets on Elm Street — is “Turn Me Loose,” a Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman rock standard from 1959. It’s an atmospheric opener, with the big sound, crackly overdrive, and warm echo reminiscent of the sound Sun Studio had made famous just a few years earlier. It’s also a statement of intent that makes the title of the album less cheeky than just plain accurate. Paul Belbusti, the man behind the ever-evolving musical project known as Mercy Choir, which has drawn from folk, electronic, and experimental music in equal measure over the years, has made his rock album.
“People have been asking me to do it for a really long time,” Belbusti said in an interview on WNHH. “When I decided to do a few shows with a full band, it sounded cool, and Tim” — Goselin, who currently plays bass in Mercy Choir — “said, ‘you know, this stuff sounds good. We should document it.’ So that’s what we did.”
Listening to the album, it’s easy to understand why.
Neither the undeniable energy nor the self-aware intentions of Traditional Rock and Roll Style, declared from the album’s title to its 1950s-style production values, should be surprising to Mercy Choir’s fans. Under that moniker, Belbusti has been steadily producing thoughtful, emotional, and wonderfully varied recordings of his material, and doing shows, since 2005. His entrance into the music world was through the world of folk and singer-songwriters, but he has since ranged as far across the musical landscape as his ears take him. Goodbye Letters, from 2008, mostly features Belbusti’s voice and a single acoustic guitar. Passagreen, from the same year, includes percussion. On 2012’s The Very Great and Horrible Harshness, the sonic palette expands to encompass electric guitar and electronic instruments. Pungs Finch, also from 2012, is a fully improvised album, recorded in one day. The year 2013 saw the wildly instrumental Apostrophe Music, the free-ranging set of songs on His Noiseless Ball, His Boxwood Rattle, and a folk-oriented collaboration with Lys Guillorn called Trouble. Through it all is a long string of gigs for Belbusti, one day performing in the style of traditional folk, the next playing electric guitar as one half of the experimental and improvisational duo Rivener.
The sound of Traditional Rock and Roll Style is the result of a “shared vision” between Belbusti and Goselin, who “came to me with the idea of rerecording a lot of Mercy Choir songs with new arrangements,” Belbusti said. All the songs have appeared on previous Mercy Choir recordings, but sound very different on those than they do on Rock and Roll Style. Putting their heads together for what a Mercy Choir rock and roll album might sound like, Belbusti and Goselin found that they mostly agreed.
“We wanted it to have that kind of echoey, early ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll sound — when possible,” Belbusti said. “Not because of nostalgia, necessarily, but because that sound feels real to me. It somehow puts me in the room with the music, even as a listener.”
Though the album is no throwback; in addition to being recorded and produced digitally — in the studio of drummer Sachin Ramabhadran, who also recorded, mixed, and engineered the album — several songs have synthesizers on them, as Mercy Choir have been performing the songs that way for a little while, with Chris Zollo on keys.
“I just said to Tim, ‘yeah, let’s get in the studio and let’s play our songs the way we play them out live, and you do whatever you want with them,” Belbusti said. “If I hate the way it sounds, I’ll speak up about it, and then we’ll put it out at the end of the year. And that’s what we did.”
This, however, doesn’t mean that Belbusti is planting his flag in rock and roll. “I don’t consider Mercy Choir a rock and roll band … this four-piece, full-band iteration of Mercy Choir is an anomaly in my life of making music,” he said good-naturedly. “That is all a very specific thing that’s happened in the past couple of years and might not ever happen again. If I ever have a big, full band again, I don’t necessarily expect it to be a bass-drums-guitar kind of thing. It’s just not part of the main vision of where Mercy Choir is headed.”
And where is Mercy Choir headed?
“I’ve always had a vision — and you can hear it in a lot of my older material but it’s going to be a more fully realized vision in the next couple of years — of having a very full-sounding, very loud band that has either no drums or very minimal drumming on it. And I’m working on it. We’re getting there. I’ve tried it a few different ways a few different times,” Belbusti said. “But that’s where I’m going with the song-based stuff, with Mercy Choir. As far as the experimental stuff, that can go anywhere.”
Judging from Mercy Choir’s fascinatingly twisty path from 2005 to Traditional Rock and Roll Style, it’d be a good idea for us to follow. Meanwhile, we can relish the sound of a band playing possibly at the top of their game, and getting it down, if not on tape, then on digits. And isn’t bottling lightning what rock and roll is all about?
Check out the full interview with Belbusti on WNHH, which includes songs from his catalog, below. Tonight’s celebration of the album’s release at Three Sheets, 372 Elm St., features the band performing the album. Lys Guillorn and Pete Nolan open the night.