Metaphors be with you in Mercy Choir’s Kitchen Knife Collection

Kitchen Knife Collection emerges from the primordial chaos of a band playing in a bar, with a defiance and gentle ruefulness that reshapes the chaos into a home. Paul Belbusti, the singer-songwriter behind Mercy Choir, defines the theme of the album as “togetherness” — a pushback against the isolation we’ve all experienced in the past 18 months (make a point of reading the full New Haven Independent interview with Karen Ponzio here).

Fridge-brilliant metaphors form the backbone of the album. The imagery makes emotional sense on the first listen, then several hours and additional listens later, it loops back to click into a fresh perspective — sometimes enlightening, sometimes disturbing, always incisive, occasionally with kangaroos.

Buy this on Bandcamp, or if you want to do the track-by-track with me before making that purchase click, there’s a Spotify embed at the bottom. This album brings on my wordiness because it’s intensely evocative of nights at bars and concert halls. I feel like I’m sitting on my bar stool, trying to find the perfect tweet to evoke the specific joys of the night, and Belbusti takes the phone from my hand and nails it.

Just for Fun

The implied setting seems the ideal bar-venue, where nobody talks over the band. Instead, we (the call-and-response is easy enough to follow that you’ll get swept up in it) egg the band on to greater feats of daring. The possible tall tales or viral TikTok feats start, like Arlo Guthrie, with a motorcycle.

This sense of simultaneously referencing musical community back to, oh, classical Greek choruses and forward to 2030 tour plans is part of the addictive charm of the album. Listening feels like joining a conversation that’s a sentence away from “wait, you were at that show too?” and “no, I missed that one, but I saw them open on the other tour” and “at it? I played trumpet on that whole tour leg.”

The telling twist is when an ordinary musical goal comes up late in the litany of wild ambitions. That right there gave me fresh appreciation of what it feels like to be launching an artistic vision into a crowd (though I secretly have a crush on the chess-playing kangaroo).

Kitchen Knife Collection

If anyone has exhorted you about defining your personal brand, here is the gold standard for doing it with incisiveness (and gentle stropping noises). This is art under capitalism in its infomercial-style narrative and reduction of the individual to household objects.

Yet if taken with perfect seriousness, it also works: knife-sharp wit, eclectic approach, warm emotional resonance, organic style that calls for active engagement are all qualities that strike me as fitting Mercy Choir’s body of work. It’s brilliantly disturbing to me in getting me questioning how we use music as a household utility, matching a song or an act to every mood.

Mary the Contrarian

In a darker timeline than ours, this would have been one of the big vaudeville songs of the 1890s, revived by each generation in the current pop style. There’d be a Bing Crosby version, a 1950s crooner cover that spent six weeks at #1, an ironic British Invasion variant, an underappreciated 1970s musical soundtrack, and at least one slowed-down acoustic version. 

This juxtaposition between cheery instrumentals from an eternal bubblegum past, warm friendly vocals, and the lyrics sends me. I want Buzzfeed to rant about how couples are wrong in using it for their wedding “first dance” song, which means someone needs to make it the trend of summer 2021. (If it’s a meditation on the creative process, it’s even funnier.)

Say the Word

At this point, reassuringly gentle acoustic guitar feels like a lure. Everything’s been twisty so far: do I trust this? (Give me that ready… steady internal rhyme, and I’ll trust anything.)

It turns into the most extravagantly raw, devotional, romantic tale without ever straying from the minimalist singer-songwriter mode. The intense intimacy of the imagery gives the listener a lot of ways to relate to this: there’s a reasonable fit with she being mentor, friend, partner, personified music, and the creative muse itself. (Of course, within a musical community, these aren’t exclusive categories.) The heart of this song, for me, is the mutuality of seeking and being sought: she isn’t a standard unattainable pop-music image, but a being who chooses and is chosen.

Scotch and Soda with Lemon

Welcome to the eternal jazz club of the soul. Note how the background conversation and fingersnapping invites you to be part of the hep cats.

The Infinite Face

The opening Ennio Morricone feel sets the mood for a journey intended to be realistic rather than epic (through a landscape of those glorious internal rhyme schemes). It becomes, for me, a sort of anti-Koyaanisqatsi, lingering on individual phases and moments, cherishing the individual within the universal tumult. It feels like the musical expression of those portraits made of thousands of individual pictures, which itself is a statement of love for the variety that unites us.

Crime Not to Try

“All of your money is tied up in cash” is my new favorite phrase: it’s such a swanky Rat Pack way to describe liquidity without investments for the future. Listen for Frank Critelli on featured vocals. Something in this world is a heist, and it’s left to the listener to figure out what.

Fiddler in the North

This seven-minute closing track works as both a gentle picaresque tale of musical adventures (I keep wanting to identify the characters described) and a refutation to “American Pie.” The music’s not dead, but is living and demanding and supportive and loyal. It has a couple more favorite images — the bones used for a bow and the answer to “what’s your sign?” — along with the straight-up beautiful John Henry reference about the uses of hammers.

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