Scott Severin knocked around the New York music scene for years, somehow winding up in Omaha sometime in the past decade. I don’t pretend to know his biography, but if his music is any indication he’s a grown up punk rocker with plenty of Clash, Dylan, Ochs, Waits, Cave, Zevon, Springsteen (his words, actually) in his collection. He recorded a forty-something debut called Unknown Rider upon settling in Omaha, a record I’ve yet to hear. Scott and I were introduced through a mutual friend and I asked him to send a copy of his second release Birdhouse Obbligato when it became available.
Glad I did. Severin’s work honors his mentors and most of it merits same breath mention. “Birdhouse” (the song, but not quite title track) has a Weill-ian menace that reminds me of Steve Wynn’s “My Old Haunts.” Actually, there’s a more general kinship between Severin’s work and Wynn’s. Severin’s delivery has the incantatory rhythms of Allen Ginsberg, but his vocal timbre and range remind me of Eric Anderson (think “I Shall Go Unbounded” more than “Blue River”), something in his enunciation too. “ And “Birdhouse’s” ‘sins that even Satan don’t allow’ suggests Nick Cave’s netherworld.
In the faded romance chronicle of “The Edge is Gone” and on ‘I Won’t Get on the Plane” I hear something of Richard Hell’s Kentucky by way of Lower East Side drawl. “Plane” and “I Don’t Know” would also sound right at home in the revived New York Dolls repertoire, especially the latter with it’s jaded Stones drive. “Even Jesus” links the Christian savior with Everyman, suggesting that like Johnny Thunders “even Jesus was born to lose.”
Perhaps most touching is “Farshtaist,” which has to be in the running for best song title adapted from a Yiddish idiom. Farshtaist translates essentially as “do you understand” or as the Yiddish equivalent of the Italian-American idiom “capiche?” Each successive verse, a first dealing with religious history and folly, a second with a conflicted maternal relationship, and a third that ponders how the artist will give moral instruction to his young daughter, explores the ambiguities and conundrums that dog us in this or any century. Told with warmth, humor and sensitivity “Farshtaist” is a call to memory, forgiveness, compassion and the charms of the muse.
Not everything on Birdhouse works. Severin’s paean to a Katrina wounded New Orleans is sincere and knowing, but so idiomatically correct musically and effusive lyrically that it drowns in presumption and sentimentality, something Severin’s tough love lyrics generally avoid.
Severin’s band, The Milton Burlesque, provides terrific support. Guitarist Tim Ranard is an authoritative rock guitarist, negotiating the influences of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler, as well as the darker attack of the Dream Syndicate’s Karl Precoda. Renowned session man, keyboardist Joe Delia also contributes mightily to several songs, his lyrical, graceful lines illuminate “Farshtaist” and his barrelhouse moves rock “I Don’t Know.”
Birdhouse Obbligato is a diverse, literate, rocking collection. There is wisdom in these songs, more than a little mixed-up confusion, and always a deep humanity.
This review first appeared in 2010. I run it again because the original source for the piece, the Kansas City Free Press, went out of business, and gone with it were any serviceable links to the reviews I did for them during my year-plus there. I am also motivated by the desire to promote a very good record that didn't necessarily get the reception it deserved. Consequently, I am doing so also because I think it could be beneficial to the artist to have access to the review. As a performer and songwriter myself I know how important positive "ink" can be - both as promotional device and balm for the soul.