Rick Berlin with The Nickel & Dime Band’s latest CD The Courage Of The Lonely is another winsome affair. Berlin reaches back into older rock and roll idioms and pulls them into the present to write songs that have dramatic punch while remaining true to the original forms. This results in some incredibly good rock and roll numbers that leave one wondering how this guy Berlin isn’t as big as the guys in The Traveling Wilburys.
“Tease Me” opens the disc with a touch of honky tonk piano and some good old fashioned classic rock guitar and groove. Berlin’s unique, engaging vocal timbre makes it easy to picture him swaggering with attitude in front of a wildly fun but very tight band.
“I Love My Room” get a touch of horn boogie from a swinging brass section. A lead guitar smolders with tense, mounting momentum supported by a hipster jive rhythm section. Berlin’s rich character voice fills the same role as Tom Wait’s voice in all those interesting songs. Berlin can emit an epic sensation with the way his voice feels larger than life. One might picture a large man lumbering around in a room with primal energy and modern day attitude.
Contemplative and mid tempo, “How Can I Let You Go?” finds Berlin belting with his huge voice, matching the force of his horn section’s brassy drive as well as the classiness of his jazzy piano bar tinkling. It’s uncanny how Berlin can project multiple elements at once. He clearly would be a million selling star if he had been in the right place in the right time. His ability to muster multiple rock and roll elements and serve them up in one loaf with so much class reminds of David Bowie.
Berlin stretches his vocal timbre into a lighter, more nuanced affair on “The Nickel & Dime Band,” a tune named after his backing band but not really a theme song for them. Here, trombonist Sam Dudley, singing lead vocal, gently pokes his voice into the gauze of sweet piano notes, backing coos, and a compressed electric guitar. He takes his listener along for a jaunty stroll through the happy landscape of his mind, with a bounce in his step similar to the pizzazz of Broadway musicals.
“I Think I’m Falling” has a swirl of energy that Berlin rides like a big wave surfer. One can almost picture Berlin doing his fancy footwork over a flow of horn during the chorus. He moves this one around with interesting changes, moving into each section with rock singer grace and enough sensitivity to know when to let his backing band strut their own stuff.
“The Boys At The Bar” pushes its way into the listener’s consciousness with a forceful backbeat and a snaking, curling electric guitar line. Juxtaposed with that is Berlin’s wide character rich vocal. One is swiftly got up in this wave of rocking action, driving beats, vocal belting, and even a bit of rap. Berlin and his band mates make this one work by throwing a bunch of elements into the mix and spinning all of those moving parts in one direction with the centrifugal force of this singer’s strong musical personality.
The curiously titled “My Fictional Friend From Norway” is a gentle rocker constructed around lightly picked and fretted lead guitar. Berlin vocalizes with a whispery hush that perfectly matches the sonic landscape here. Poppy keyboards and horns move the listener along with their conveyor belt of sound, letting Berlin’s voice just barely touches the ear with his self-restrained, understated vocal work. Cool. Perfect.
Title track “The Courage Of The Lonely” is a gripping electric piano ballad. Its electronic tinkling creates a forlorn vibe while Berlin’s lonesome vocal drive home the sad , mournful vibe of this song. He manages to make this song feel epic with wide sweeps of piano and one cannot help but feel swept away in its variety of gentle textures.
“New York Girl” get a 1960s texture from a strange keyboard melody and a fluffy marching beat before turning into a more brisk rocker. Berlin and the Nickel & Dime Band create a lot of sound with a bunch of edgy rock musicianship. They’ll make you feel like partying to their chunk of driving rock, swinging horns while keeping you focused on their tale about the quirky title character.
Berlin and the Nickel & Dime Band close out with “Sad Songs Make Me Happy,” a weepy, down tempo piano ballad. Multi instrumentalist Ricky Mclean sings lead vocals on this one and his unique timbre reaches into a mournful, plaintive place, making his plea for happiness strikingly stark in the open space. The rest of the band soon come in, moving in with a slow but heavy beat one cannot ignore. Berlin then pours his heart out through his microphone, becoming more intense and more engaging as he goes along. It speaks volumes about his ability to build a song up into something exciting with only the barest elements to start with.
Berlin’s Nickel & Dime Band include keyboardist Jane Mangini, multi-instrumentalist Ricky McLean, guitarist Rob Manochio, drummer Al Radzikowski, drummer Ken Diaz, trombonist Sam Dudley, saxophonist Paul Ahlstrandt, trombonist Jon Stewart, percussionist TJ Wenzl, bassist Mike DeLisle, and bassist David Goodchild. With these players supporting him on various tracks, recorded at Dimension Sound in Jamaica Plain, Berlin has come up with some of the best, most inventive, and unpretentious rock music in New England. Let’s hope he keeps coming up with stuff this good each time.