Brock’s vision shines on Borrowed Beams of Light’s new EP

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Supergroup Borrowed Beams of Light includes Ray Szwabowski, Dave Gibson, Marie Landragin, Nate Walsh, Adam Brock, and Jordan Brunk. (Photo by Sam German) Supergroup Borrowed Beams of Light includes Ray Szwabowski, Dave Gibson, Marie Landragin, Nate Walsh, Adam Brock, and Jordan Brunk. (Photo by Sam German)

For years, local music fans only knew Adam Brock as a drummer, the powerful force behind bands like The Nice Jenkins and Invisible Hand. But it’s always been clear that Brock was capable of more. His clear and exuberant singing voice added a perfect pop edge to his bands’ tunes, and his enthusiastic taste as a record collector ran towards the eclectic and the ornate end of the pop-rock spectrum: the Zombies, the Kinks, Sparks, and Harry Nilsson.

In 2009, Brock finally made his debut as a frontman, with a solo project called Borrowed Beams of Light. Over the past three years, this side project has included enough other members to qualify as a Charlottesville supergroup, and at its best threatens to overshadow the popularity of his other projects. The debut EP, followed by a split single and full-length album, won acclaim from many fellow musicians, as well as a devoted following among the rock DJs at WTJU.

The Beams are now preparing to release a new EP, a six-track record entitled Hot Springs. The list of studio personnel is an odd summation of the groups’ history; half the tracks were recorded by the original duo of Brock and his former Nice Jenkins bandmate Nate Walsh performing over simple drum machine backing—the remaining songs are fully fleshed out by the Beams’ current live band, which includes Jordan Brunk (another former Jenkin) and Marie Landragin of the retro-metal act Corsair, as well as Dave Gibson and Ray Szwabowski. The basic backing tracks were laid down at White Star Studios in Louisa County, and then fully fleshed out in smaller recording studios in the apartments and practice spaces of various band members.

For a record with such a patchwork recording history, Hot Springs is remarkably coherent; a testament to the consistency of Brock’s talent and aesthetic vision. His greatest skill as a songwriter and performer has always been the ability to put forward in odd, obscure, or downright impenetrable narrative conceits and conceptual whims in the form of breezy, largely unchallenging power-pop. Fancy breakdowns, odd turns of phrase and left turn bridges abound, but the end result is approachable and charming, even if they often sound more like an eclectic rock band playing with the idea of pop music than anything that might have actually appeared on the Billboard charts in the past 30 years.

The opening title track is bombastically catchy, with all of the manic hooks that Beams fans have grown to expect. “You’re such a lovely girl/to melt this awful snow!” Brock chatters, but it sounds less like a come-on than an insistence on the song’s own hook itself. “Wing Stroke” is stripped-down and simpler, but may be the record’s high point; yowling, yelping lines are interspersed with clear, straight-forward ones, as Brock wildly intones “I could waste my days in here/I might drink my weight in tears.” “Fine Lines” concludes the side with a credible soundalike of Roxy Music or vintage Bowie.

The B-side is more relaxed and glam-influenced, proving the band can still keep the quality control high even when they calm down a bit. Throughout, Marie Landragin’s harmonized guitar solos are the most anachronistic part of the record, but also the most enjoyable. Many of the songs are interspersed with confusing spoken-word snippets and vocal field recordings, never taking center stage but often adding texture and character. The EP concludes with “Simple Century,” which has a heavy early ’90s adult contemporary vibe. An aesthetic that I indelibly associate with “grocery store music”—which would almost be funny if they didn’t play it totally straight-faced; surprisingly, the style actually works to the song’s advantage.

This 45rpm 12″ record, issued by Harrisonburg-based Funny/Not Funny Records, is the Beams’ first vinyl-only release, though all copies come with an mp3 download code. “With a CD pressing, often the minimum amount you can do is in the thousands—and it’s actually cheaper in total to get, like 5,000 CDs than a few hundred.” Brock explains. “I just didn’t have it in me to fill the rest of my basement with another dozen boxes of unsold CDs.” Hot Springs is limited to 333 copies of the LP, but more download codes are planned; once the vinyl edition is depleted, the band may sell download cards featuring a miniature facsimile of the EP’s excellent cover art by prolific local artist and musician Thomas Dean.

Borrowed Beams opens for Dr. Dog at the Jefferson tonight. Brock relishes the idea of playing for a larger, potentially sold-out crowd: “There’s something nice about playing a bigger room. I think it works best for the type of music we’re playing. Plus, we’re all in our 30s now, and there’s only so many years of your life you can spend playing shows for three stoned kids in a living room and then crashing on the couch.” Although Hot Springs’ proper release date isn’t until August 14, those who have pre-ordered the record through Funny/Not Funny will be able to pick up their purchases at tonight’s show.

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