Bolting out of the gate with bubbling New Wave keyboards, crunchy guitars and Jon Lindsay's crystal-toned tenor, "All Them Houses," the lead off track of Lindsay's Cities and Schools, sets the tone for the rest of his third solo album.
"It's a hybrid of vintage and modern pop," Lindsay says, a love letter to Prince, Cyndi Lauper and Jeff Lynne's production for The Traveling Wilburys, where clean layers of shiny tech rubs shoulders with rootsy organic instrumentation. Despite its bright angular sound, the song is unsettling, embracing darkness and danger as well as beauty. It's also a calling card for the artist's most confessional record.
"Work that's truly good is the stuff that makes your relatives and friends uncomfortable," he adds, noting the person with the most cause for discomfort may be himself.
Since launching his career in Charlotte in 2006, the 35-year old singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and activist has founded bands The Young Sons and The Catch Fire, played keyboards for Raised by Wolves and Benji Hughes, called out Governor Pat McCrory for civil rights abuses with a collective of Tar Heel musicians called the North Carolina Music Love Army, and launched a solo career with his 2010 debut album, Escape From Plaza-Midwood.
Last year, Lindsay made good on that escape, decamping the artsy Charlotte neighborhood for Raleigh. The move was the precursor to other career and life changes. On May 28th, Lindsay married his fiancée Erin Rose Coffin in a ceremony held at the Visulite. He's also finalizing dates for a European tour this fall, and on June 10th he returns to Plaza Midwood for a Snug Harbor show marking the release of Cities and Schools.
Among songs that sketch a former co-worker "who never let anyone in, and tried to own her isolation" ("Lifer"), and Lindsay's fresh-out-of-grad-school corporate gig at Bank of America where he had a ringside seat to the "unethical behavior and bad decisions that ran the country's economy into the ditch" ("When They Broke the World"), are tunes that cut closer to Lindsay's heart.
The sprawling, swirling "Hugo" recounts his experience with the monster storm that struck Charlotte in 1989. While eight-year-old Lindsay was hiding in the basement of his family's house, the eye of the hurricane passed overhead. "This green and pink neon light came out of nowhere, the rain just stopped," and Lindsay was compelled to run outside and stare transfixed at the alien sky. The singer-songwriter says the encounter branded him. "Some things you have to chase and experience, and they leave a mark on you."
Another harrowing experience — this time with unscrupulous music business partners — informs the retro-electro "In Breach." Displeased with his artistic direction, Lindsay's previous publisher tried to bury Cities and Schools. "They made my life a living hell, and they threatened to destroy me," Lindsay says. He finally walked away from the bad deal with his copyrights and material intact.
With its loping funk beat and candy coated power chords, "Jonny Outta Kontrol" presents an idyllic portrait of super-cool Jonny, a fearless friend who never grew up. "But (the narrative) turns messy," Lindsay says. "Is Jonny happy with the life he chose?" Soon it becomes clear that "Jonny is an amalgam of the narrator and part of himself from the past, a personality facet that can't be kicked. And if Jonny ever truly bites the dust, does that mean the death of dreams?"
Soaring and celestial, "The Church of Me" is an incisive statement about the relationship between musicians and their audience. Here, in comic, over the top couplets, Lindsay conflates evangelical preachers with rock and rollers.
"We've entered into this covenant. I'm going to make records and I need (the audience) to engage with them."
At times, the arrangement is open and mutually enriching, says Lindsay,and at other times silly. "I'm a grown man who sings about my feelings and tries to get people to care about it."
Despite moments of doubt and darkness, Cities and Schools celebrates the act of making music.
The process is both a kind of magic and a glorious mess, Lindsay maintains. And Plaza Midwood's most illustrious escapee wouldn't have it any other way.