July 18, 2011 at 10:00 PM

Infamous: A review of Naiz Denae’s latest album

"The songs collected in Infamy, Denaeā€™s first full-length album, vary in styles, tempos and degrees of complexity..."

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There’s a slight burn at the end of a swig of Jameson Whiskey. It begins at the pit of the belly and lifts towards the mouth causing the lips to pinch, eyes to glaze, and lungs to vapor a labored phew… But when the liquor is chilled, the pull from the bottle—the whiskey oily in its cold—glazes the teeth towards the throat; it enters like a flash of light, effortless and clean. 

This is how my conversation with Naiz Denae begins on a picnic table at a friend’s home in La Cienega. Denae, a southern New Mexico native who leads the band Rhythm and 53rd, is easily the most complicated individual I know. To understand him and begin to piece together the puzzle of his music, life and newly released album "Infamy"…the whiskey helps. 

The tapestry of Denae’s life begins hundreds of feet in the air. As a day job, Denae is an electrical lineman, or more succinctly he is an apprentice to be a lineman; an honor that over 2000 yearly applicants fail to achieve. Not unlike oil field roughnecks, linemen are a unit of humanity carved from entirely different planks of wood. If you’ve ever been on a road trip, stared towards the horizon at the repeating power lines dividing the emptiness, Denae and his assorted colleagues are the ones who hang from climbing harnesses to build and maintain the towers and, in effect, our ability to turn on the lights at home. He does this in the murderous heat and cold of West Texas and New Mexico. The hours are obscene and the work is unimaginably dangerous.

As the new guy on the block, let’s just say that staff retreats and chatting about work performance over chai aren’t in the employee handbook. And still, in his spare time, he makes music.

One would think that a self-taught, tattooed, whiskey-guzzling lineman/musician would be the second coming of David Allan Coe. But as it turns out Denae is full of surprises.

The songs collected in "Infamy," Denae’s first full-length album, vary in styles, tempos and degrees of complexity. Where some tunes are muscular with design and scope like the reggae-inspired “Regardless” others like “What’s Left to Say” offer direct singer-songwriter interpretations.  

Like many debut albums, first collections have a tendency to fluctuate in creative direction. Denae’s body of work is informed through a variety of R&B strains, and "Infamy" offers hybrid sounds with multiple points of familiarity. Denae’s agile voice has neo-soul inflections that gingerly lead his melodies; what it lacks in low-end warmth, Denae makes up in self-assured delivery. Rather than singing above the groove, his vocals involve themselves deeply inside the music to create a peculiar blend of country/folk candor with cosmopolitan savvy.  

Perhaps there are hints of a Stevie Wonder/Al Green coalition walking through a staccato cadence—a style popularized among the ashes of pop ska that evolved into the beach-stoner platitudes of Jack Johnson and his range-less sort. Left unchecked you have Jason Mraz. Under Denae’s direction, a backlog of rhythm & blues and soul appears—sticks and jabs—with a compendium of raw and unrepentant experiences carefully spun to music. 

Denae didn’t skimp in the studio. Recorded at Frogville Recording Studio, singer-songwriter John Courage produced and played on the record, while Bill Palmer engineered. Players include his Rhythm and 53rd band mate Case Tanner; horns courtesy of Russell Sharf and Manual Ramirez Ruiz from the salsa band Nosotros; Kevin Zoernig on keys and the inimitable Joel Fadness on drums. This particular lot of musicians represents a serious mob of musical talent, which also may explain the broad sequencing of styles. 

For its various strengths, "Infamy" left me longing for more of the vibe created by the tune “Only a Man.” It is a love-lost appeal that expresses the considerable possibilities in Denae’s career as a musician. The song validates the direct line created by the artist between untethered inspiration and constructing something meaningful to share. Because the album covers so much musical ground, the song’s intimate tenor and others of similar style such as “Angela” and “Someone’s Agenda” compete against the tongue and cheek playfulness of tunes like “Brokeass Birthday.”  Although they both co-exist in "Infamy," a picture of the musician behind the tunes is difficult to gauge. 

Whether it is our task to understand the artist’s life as much as the work produced by the artist is another conversation. Ultimately, it is within the quieter moments of the album that make the deepest and most memorable connections.   

Infamy engages, grips deeply…stops you cold. In this, it represents what the very best music can do, which is to make you continue listening and hook you along in its journey. In Denae’s case, making music, which is something that’s he done his entire life, is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it will convince him to give up his day job, which is of course still up in the air. 

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