classic French film subtly remixed by an Acid-jockey
'My Life As A Dog' is Gustav Bertha's fifth full length CD in just three years. However in the year since he gave us the excellent 'Babble', Gustav has been working hard at improving his already impressive production values. The resulting album is easily his best work yet, encapsulating the smoke-filled ambience of a European jazz club with his own unique and wholly enticing sound. Songs about forgotten mental patients, the evils of work, the highs and lows of love, manipulation and suicide highlight the strong lyrical talent and burred Scottish vocals of this Zurich based ex-pat. Fans of Tom Waits, Michael Marra, Regina Spektor and other piano-led pop/jazzsters are urged to listen to the sample tracks available on the man's website - www.gustavbertha.com and spread the word, but for those who want to get under the skin of each song here's a run-down:
'The King's Men' is a downbeat tale of a forgotten mental asylum inmate who has been released back into society. If the lyrics seem simple, the bitter reality is that the song is more affecting for it. Understated natural instrumentation of piano, viola and bass brings to mind a grainy image of peering through a door slightly ajar to a collection of inmates making beautiful music. A song ripe to be fleshed out into a film, Peter Cattaneo should be ringing Gustav's phone off the hook.
'Jackboot' is more menacing, a dark forest so thick and claustrophobic no snow penetrates to light the path. Subtle electronica has been weaved into Gustav's sound here, a suitable marching stomp of a bassdrum develops the tension against the deceptively light piano and viola. Essentially a song about confrontation, of being down but not out, of Mel Gibson in a skirt shouting "you won't break me with your jackboot!"... well maybe not the latter but you get the idea. The nightmarish stomp that doesn't seem to end can really creep you out in a lonely darkened room.
'Poison Queen' moves us into smoky jazz bars, an ode to a vitriolic letter writer starting with the disclaimer "if I kill you in my song it doesn't make me a psychopath" - you surely know how this is going to end! Gentle waves of Hammond organ almost light the cigar for you, leading into the best instrumental break in the album with interplay between piano and Hammond setting up the inevitable as her own hate destroys her: "she crumbles into dust to be scattered on the breeze". Beautiful.
'Four Letter Word' is an anthem for those of us who enjoy bed more than work (and I'm sure that's most of us here?). Upbeat instrumentation and French chanson vibe from the accordion. A suitably lazy sounding song, it's the vocals that shine here: smoky, burred and continuing the jazz club vibe.
'I used to be' is one of the darkest moments on the CD. Seems to be a song about being in love and then being spurned "I used to be Superman", possibly even an antithesis to Poison Queen? "I became volcanic and erupted with a vengeance" seems to suggest a link with the earlier song. The sense of isolation provoked by the lyrics and minimalist piano is quite overpowering.
'The Great Divide' is the most upbeat and hopeful songs about divorce I've heard. Multi layered meaning behind the title: as well as the most obvious meaning, the great divide is also a place in your head that has to be crossed before life can continue. A close runner-up for best track, the fantastic change from piano jazz to computer game synth frenzy invigorates and surprises.
'My Life As A Dog'. The title track and the best on the CD. Lazy beats, relaxed instrumentation, pessimistic lyrics. Soft focus imagery of a love metaphor seen from a unique angle. Basically, this track celebrates loyalty in love. "I wait for your key in the door". One good video and this track could propel Gustav to satellite TV fame.
'Classical Music' cleverly adapts codas from Beethoven to back a love song proclaiming "I'd terrorise to have you". A passionate song with stream-of-consciousness lyrics reminiscent of Regina Spektor, and if you weren't unsettled by the words the warped circus music/pipe organ break will surely tip you over the edge.
'A Little Let Down'. Initially I thought this was an anti war, anti capitalist rant to those with their heads still stuck in the sand - and maybe it is - but this clever onion offers more to the careful listener. Sound bite lyrics highlight how history continually repeats itself - human nature is such that words are always manipulated, in religion, government and commerce. The wholly blasphemous "My name is Hitler, I'm Jesus Christ" outro refrain emphasises that while their politics may have differed they were both excellent at manipulation. Angry instrumentation and delivery hammer the song home. This one really does grow on you. Let it.
Final song time, and 'Hey Dave' doesn't disappoint. It's a piano-led open letter to Dave, an old friend of Gustav's who seems intent on killing himself and may well have already succeeded. Like 'The King's Men', this is brutally honest and hard hitting, nicely book ending the CD. Again subtle viola and bass stand resolutely behind the piano as Gustav muses "maybe now you're somewhere much happier than this".
Refreshing, enlightening and confident, it's like stepping onto the set of a classic French film - but the soundtrack has been carefully and subtly remixed by an Acid-jockey.