New York, NY (Top40 Charts)
One of the most improbable and inspiring underdog stories in modern pop opens an exciting new chapter. Cait Brennan's Third, a raucous, joyful new release, debuts on Omnivore Recordings on April 21, 2017.
Recorded at Memphis' legendary Ardent Studios, in the same room and on much of the same equipment as the Big Star albums made there, Third — cheekily named after that band's shambolic, storied swan song — finds Brennan and longtime collaborator Fernando Perdomo channeling some of the beauty and madness of the Memphis
legends, while taking inspired sonic leaps and wild hairpin-turns of their own.
Take "Benedict Cumberbatch," the glam-punk answer to Taylor Swift's "Mean," in which Brennan gives an unworthy ex the kiss-off by handing the song to the British heartthrob and Doctor Strange star instead. Or "He Knows Too Much," which turns retro girl-group angst into straight-up sing-along homicide (with a legal disclaimer just in case they find the body). Or "The Angels Lie," which finds Brennan clawing at death's door for a spot in 2016's afterlife concert of the century.
Cait's debut long-player, 2016's Debutante, was one of the year's most unexpected treats. Recorded with help from fans via Kickstarter and released on the singer-songwriter's own home label, Debutante landed on multiple year-end best-of lists including the Village Voice Pazz & Jop Poll, Goldmine and Popdose, and was championed by radio presenters including WFMU's Evan "Funk" Davies and SiriusXM's Larry Flick. A year out from its release, Debutante still continues to receive national and international attention. Cait Brennan's Third is a huge leap forward that makes good on all the promise of her debut, and then some.
Its stadium-sized sonic blast plays like a live band at its peak, which makes it all the more remarkable that the record was made by a duo. Third was produced and performed entirely by Brennan and her creative partner Fernando Perdomo, whose musical credits include everything from Emitt Rhodes' Rainbow
Ends to working with Jakob Dylan, Beck, Fiona Apple, Jade Castrinos of the Magnetic Zeroes, and Regina
The duo is a casebook in contrasts: Perdomo, the virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, is firmly grounded in the traditions of power pop and classic rock, citing touchstones like Todd Rundgren. Brennan grew up as a fierce devotee of glam, soul, and postpunk, and her eclectic, lyrical and literate songwriting dives deep into indie rock, contemporary pop, hip-hop and R&B. The fearless and fierce clash of styles and eras make for a constant tug of war and a heady brew that packs the fat sonic punch of a great classic rock album —but sounds as fresh and contemporary as it gets.
The creative tension and obvious affection between the two collide in the studio, where Perdomo lays down the majority of the instruments, especially the explosive rhythm section and edgy, expressive lead guitars; Brennan plays a bit of everything, but arranges and sings all of the album's multi-octave stacks of vocals herself, pushing a preposterous four-plus octave range into service on lush, soulful multitrack harmonies and a lead vocal that swaggers effortlessly from low Bowie territory to St. Vincent
to somewhere just this side of Mariah. That versatility has led to some hilarious mix-ups, like when one jaded industry exec groused that he didn't much like Brennan's vocals but "the girls singing those harmonies are amazing."
The album features guest appearances by Van Duran and Robert Maché.
The journey to Ardent and Memphis
was a long one. Brennan, who is transgender, came out as a teenager and began writing songs and performing while still in high school in Arizona. After experiencing multiple setbacks and anti-trans violence, she gave up performing music entirely, enduring and overcoming a string of personal tragedies before quietly forging a successful career as an actor, screenwriter and journalist, while continuing to write songs privately for decades. Encouraged by friends, she reluctantly returned to music performance in 2012 to significant early acclaim. A chance meeting with popmaster Fernando Perdomo on an International Pop Overthrow festival bill led to a creative partnership, a self-released debut album, and a groundswell of enthusiastic critics and fans who discovered Debutante via WFMU, SiriusXM and others, and wanted more. The duo had even completed a follow-up album, which by all accounts was excellent. But during the early weeks of the tour, Brennan sustained what became a life-threatening injury and endured a long hospitalization and recovery, very nearly joining the cavalcade of musicians who left us in 2016. "They wouldn't take me — I'm not that good," she laughed, a joke that would contribute mightily to two of the album's standout tracks, "Shake Away" and "The Angels Lie," in which the afterlife's greatest concert — "where cocaine and formaldehyde's all the rage" — is saving her a seat.
"The near-death thing, and the loss of all these artists that I loved so much, just changed everything," Brennan says. "I loved the album we'd recorded, but the world had changed and I had changed. And then we met Jody Stephens and everything else changed, too."
While in Los Angeles recording demos for a Sire/Warner Bros deal that ultimately didn't pan out, Brennan won tickets to a Grammy Museum celebration of Ardent Studios' 50th Anniversary — an event that took place on Perdomo's birthday, no less. After the event, the pair talked with Ardent's Jody Stephens, who invited Cait to come to Memphis
and record her third album at the studio. "I didn't know how, but I knew we had to go," Cait said. "I was planning the trip before I got out of the parking garage."
Four months later, Brennan and Perdomo entered Ardent's studio A for the first time, with Adam Hill engineering and Stephens popping in frequently to offer encouragement. Brennan arrived with a notebook full of half-finished songs and scraps of ideas, banking on the immediacy of the moment and the inspiration that could only come from actually being in the historic space. While Perdomo tracked guitars for one song, Cait was sitting in the control room, writing the chorus for the next. The pace was breakneck. The first day at Ardent, they tracked three songs. The second day, four. The third day, six. The results are by turns urgent, fresh, and inspired, with a frenetic live-set intensity augmented with the lush orchestral and vocal flourishes that made Debutante stand out.
The duo also made extensive use of perhaps the two most storied pieces of gear in the Ardent inventory — Alex Chilton's fabled Mellotron and Chris Bell's cherry red Gibson 330, both maintained under Adam Hill's loving stewardship. Perdomo's blazing solo on "Bad at Apologies" was played on the Gibson, while Brennan plays it on "Collapse" — an experience that moved her to tears. "Chris meant a lot to me," she said. "He's one of the big reasons I make music. To come full circle like that was almost too much. I'm so grateful to the Bell family for making it available for Ardent and for us to use."
"Big Star's Third was and is my favorite album of all time," Brennan says. "I don't know that our Third sounds much like it, but I like to think that some of the experimentation and chaos and beauty and soul of the original — and all the band's catalog, individually and together — is a part of what we made at Ardent. It's certainly a big part of what drives me to make music in the first place."
Brennan was born in Phoenix, but has family roots in Memphis
and the Mid-South that go back generations. The influence of Memphis
music is unmistakable. "Stack Overthrow" fuses old-school Stax soul with contemporary Wondaland-inspired R&B in a song that gives rapid-fire nods to Otis Redding, Prince, the Beatles
and Sam Cooke's Soul Stirrers, bridging spirituals, '80s pop and growling indie guitars with a gutsy vocal that will shake the timbers. The morning-after heartache of "Caitiebots Don't Cry" sounds like the Three Degrees via Dusty In Memphis, while Memphis
legend Van Duren, whose connections to Ardent and Big Star run deep, helped co-write Brennan's bouncing, Janelle Monáe-influenced soul stomper "Shake Away" and plays guitar on the track. "A Hard Man To Love" lays a few dozen intricate, hip-hop vibe vocal tracks over swirling strings and an irresistible live-drums breakbeat.
Beneath all this spirited glam, power-pop and soul, the undercurrent and uncertainty of life in 2017 is palpable. "Collapse," with its sparse lyric and gorgeous guest solo by Robert Maché of the Continental Drifters, chronicles a devastating personal breakdown, while the swooning, cinematic "At the End of the World" remakes the power ballad as a promise that whatever's coming, you won't have to gave it alone. "Perish the Thought" wryly confronts the rise of an authoritarian darkest-timeline world with a "Biko"-like resistance anthem. The mournful, apocalyptic "Goodbye Missamerica," with its entirely improvised, slapback-psych vocal, goes straight to Big Star's "Holocaust" territory, with the ghosts of Ardent in full effect.
Omnivore Recordings, a longtime champion of innovative, iconoclastic artists, seems the perfect home for Cait Brennan. The label's long history with Ardent and Big Star reached new heights with the acclaimed, lovingly assembled release of Big Star's Complete Third.
"I had been listening to Cait for a while," says Cheryl Pawelski of Omnivore. "Serendipitously, I was at the show where Cait met Fernando, and noticed right away, they were the two most interesting people in the room that day. I kept an eye on how her career was going, and after hearing these songs develop into such a strong, unique and addictively catchy album, there was no question, it was obvious."
For her part, Brennan has long described Omnivore as "the greatest label on the planet" for releasing albums by many of her heroes, including the Muffs, Bert Jansch, Merle Haggard, Game Theory, Emitt Rhodes, Neil Finn
and countless others. "There is no label in the world I'd rather be on," Brennan says. "The people at Omnivore give everything they've got for the love of music, and it's an absolute honor to be on their roster," Cait says. "I never dreamed I'd have the chance, but now that I do, it feels like home."
The tracks on Third are by turns darkly hilarious and deeply moving, with the most lacerating self-deprecation and devastating music-relationship tension this side of Buckingham and Nicks. The names may have been changed, but it wasn't to protect the innocent. "Yeah, I'm the asshole who stole your boyfriend," Brennan sings on the aptly titled "Bad at Apologies," a brutal takedown of herself, her man and the "best of friends" who made the mistake of temporarily stepping away from the apartment. It's the kind of soulful, witty, irresistibly catchy thing Brennan does best.
"I try writing everything as fiction, but the truth always muscles in," Brennan says. "I'm not sure it's possible to make good, smart, non-idiotic decisions about love and still write songs, but I'm in absolutely no danger of finding out."
With songs like these, here's hoping she never does. Cait Brennan's Third channels the broken heart and soul of its legendary namesake into a new era, with deep affection for the spirits of the past but with its focus set squarely on the future.
1. Bad at Apologies
2. Stack Overflow
3. He Knows Too Much
4. At the End of the World
5. A Hard Man To Love
6. Caitiebots Don't Cry
7. Benedict Cumberbatch
8. Shake Away
9. The Angels Lie
12. Perish the Thought
13. Goodbye Missamerica