Singer and guitarist Billy Brandt‘s new album, City Noir, sounds almost exactly as you might expect from the title. Brandt, who hails from Seattle, has filled these tributes to film noir with rain, slick streets and a steady palette of grays and blacks. “It felt as if the city was the main character in a black and white movie,” he explains, inspired by a drive through the streets on a particularly cloudy day. I know how he feels, since I lived in the Pacific Northwest for a couple of years. I loved the way everything seemed so clean and fresh and easy on the lungs, but there’s always a point after three of four months of steady rain that you want to break free from hibernation and inject a little life into your day.
Billy Brandt has not concocted a rainy day album. City Noir relies heavily on soul, blues and a modicum of jazz for these original compositions, and Brandt’s voice is that of an extrovert, a person who wants to beckon people from their homes, away from their fireplaces and their pile of books to read, so they can celebrate the fact that everyone in the city is still alive. He watched a lot of old movies in preparation for this album–The Naked City in particular. He uses a rotation of local musicians for City Noir, a team he has named The Thing and the Stuff. That gives each of these eight tracks a slightly different feel, as if you’re watching eight different films from the ’40s.
The themes are the often the same, with femme fatales, a bludgeoned sense of the romantic and a healthy dose of cynicism. I found people in the PNW to be smart, well-read and skewed toward pessimism, and these songs are filled with those characterizations. That doesn’t stop the sun from shining through in rare spots, such as Alexy Nikolaev‘s upbeat saxophone and Joe Doria‘s Hammond B-3. (Nikolaev has played with one of my favorite jazz vocalists, Jacqueline Tabor.) Life beneath the carpet of gray and green is one of the recurring motifs: “the trees are evergreen and seen in Technicolor” he sings at one point, and that reminds me of a time when I told one of my sons that Washington State was comprised of two colors in the spring, green and gray.
There’s a richness to the sound provided by this large group of musicians. Billy Brandt can strip down the ensemble to a piano trio, as he does on “Frances Doesn’t Care for the Blues, ” or he can launch into a tango at the drop of a hat in the hopes that everyone will get up and dance. I feel like I’m trotting out a bunch of stereotypes of the Pacific Northwest to describe City Noir, but it’s only because Brandt has done such a fine job of capturing the drenched spirit of the place–a place I still miss to this day.