Judson Claiborne confront humanity’s downfall with beautiful songs on When a Man Loves an Omen
By Mark Guarino
When humanity’s ship goes down due to a global pandemic, vulture capitalism, and corrupt politics, the band picking and singing the final notes will be Chicago’s Judson Claiborne. So this month—when we’re grappling with the messy aftermath of an election while watching COVID-19 cases skyrocket before our eyes—feels like the perfect time for Christopher Salveter, the group’s auteur, to release this collection of finely wrought songs that confront apocalyptic anxiety with beautiful melodies that make sticking around feel like a better option. When a Man Loves an Omen, Salveter’s first release in six years, is a lovely baroque folk EP filled with light: the deep bends of Julian Rogai’s double bass, the ever-present banjo of Josh Lantzy, and the pulsing percussion of Jamie Topper create a lush and comforting bed that’s difficult to leave.
Salveter is also a subversive songwriter, though, and works pretty melodies into songs with harrowing themes: the waltzing “Twenty Dollar Quartet” features the lost voices and obsessions of Sun Records royalty such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis, while “Conditionals” makes the horrors of climate change personal (“If all of the signs are gonna be ignored,” Salveter sings, “Then who of our kind is gonna mind the store”). With its echoing guitars, “I Want My Undeveloped Prefrontal Cortex Back” yearns for more primitive times. Like Califone and Andrew Bird, Salveter is ultimately a minimalist folkie, in full command of his music’s enchanting darkness and the beauty that can be found within such sparse instrumentation. When a Man Loves an Omen largely serves as a showcase for the harmony singing of Salveter and his bandmates, but the piano instrumental “Alive in Time” is nonetheless a standout, its melody rolling over whispers of electronics. The elegant fingerpicking of “The Trimmergrant” creates an atmosphere of mystery regarding the disappearance of migrant workers hired to trim marijuana at night in northern California: “No marijuana grows unprotected,” Salveter sings. The song could easily serve as the opening theme to the next installment of True Detective, but it’s also a haunting world of its own making.