David Safran is a singer-songwriter from Chicago, Illinois, who records with Tim Sandusky, proprietor of Studio Ballistico. I had heard about Safran’s perfectionism from Sandusky and decided to investigate further.
Four of Safran’s songs are available on his MySpace page, www.myspace.com/dsafran. I reviewed them in late April and early May 2008.
My favoriteof the four is Starving Time, a gentle (96 beats per minute) country-flavored waltz. Safran's velvety vocals weave in and out of the background piano accompaniment, giving an emotional punch to a song about requited love. His voice drops to a whisper, sharpens in intensity, and is punctuated by a chuckle, as he tells a story. It begins "in that old starving time," when the other lovers were gone, but "I longed for you," and "knew you were mine." During that half a year, he was "a man of feeling."." But the target of his feeling was "bitter and thin and tired of men," and more concerned about where he didn't "put [his] hand" than with whether they pleased each other. While his friends played their music to "silence the room," he stole their lines and "said they were mine" and, at best, expressed "some tired little confession." In time, as spring returned, other "lovers were back" but his was gone as he "waited for the Union Pacific" commuter train to go to his job where he would “wither” as a "buttoned-up clerk" with a "cheap little smirk." He still "wishes you were mine," but acknowledges that they have "grown beyond their grief" because comfort is what both seemed to need.
Everything fits together perfectly: the vocals with the lyrics and the message; the rhythmic piano deep in the background; joined by a violin for the first instrumental interlude, which is replaced by an acoustic guitar for the next verse. These three instruments intertwine in and out of the following verses, choruses and interludes, with Sarah Holtschlag’s vocals gently joining Safran’s intermittently for the last half of the song. Then, the instrumentation thins and fades deeply into the background, leaving Safran alone to contemplate what might have been, as he commutes to his buttoned-up daily routine in the freshness of spring.
Once Deeper in You is a lament about a past relationship. It reflects meticulously crafted form and lyrics, with a message movingly communicated in a soft, sensitive baritone voice, sounding older than Safran’s 24 years. The song begins with a bass “A,” followed by eight beats of rest. Then: “They’ve cast you to the lion; I think I agree/I’m living wholly in the past; that’s what pleases me,” sung slowly with a flat melodic line-- in a breathy though expressive monotone. You can feel the sadness. Momentum builds throughout the song, with increasing instrumentation, more intense vocals and more melodic variation. The chorus comprises, “Once deeper in you,” repeated four times with a touch of light female harmonies. The lyrics drip with double entendre: is he talking about a relationship at a higher level, or the primitive sexual act? The accompaniment, very much a mere background for the vocals, is limited to sparse piano, with occasional acoustic guitar, and light, basic percussion, barely discernable. Ample space in the song permits reflection on the sense of the lyrics and invites an image of sad loneliness, the protagonist—the listener imagines himself--sitting in a darkened condo by the lake, drinking by candlelight and mourning what once seemed possible but could not be. In this song, Safran shows that simplicity reinforces sincerity. Vaguely, the song reminds one of Leonard Cohen's If it Be Your Will.
One More Disgrace is livelier from the beginning, at a faster tempo, without leaving the realm of quiet reflection. It evokes the inner dialogue of someone who is dancing to slow music with an attractive partner and hoping against hope to persuade the partner that he is worthwhile. “I look better in the dark/if you had to ask me.” Then, later on: “We're all touched by Holy Spirit, but in a lower place.” The lyrics, made convincing by occasionally whispered phrases, portray a lonely individual, consumed by self doubt, lurking in the corner of a bar, only to be brought to the dance floor by a piece the band plays and the willingness of a pretty partner to dance with him. He imagines the pleasure of a closer, longer connection, while reminding himself that it likely will end in disgrace, one of them rejecting the other. Maybe he should not aim too high: “Why make love when we can embrace/One more pleasure, one more disgrace?” Safran sings in the same soft, expressive voice, with the emphases and pauses in just the right places to convince a listener that he is listening to his own thoughts. The arrangement, again much in the background, allows Safran’s vocals to carry the message. They comprise synth and plucked bouzouki played by Andreas Kapsalis. The intensity builds toward the end, and the increasing melodic movement is pleasing.
Five-minute long All My Sacred Thoughts is dark in its lyrics and tone, but it has a bouncy beat. The underlying scheme of the melody and chord progressions are not complex-- 120 beats per minute, with I-IV-V chord progression followed by I-IV-I-IV-I in the key of B. As with the other three songs, struggle with attraction is the context, but in Sacred, the singer is dominant over the interaction. "I'm all alone; the mood is right. My head is clear; my hair shirt's tight." Outside, darkness reigns, but inside is a feeling of firm control. ""I'm learning to be honest/now that I have lost/all my sacred thoughts," supported by rhythmic hand claps. Not everything in life is perfect: “A prince like me cannot deal with struggle." "Some girls just don't care to know me . . . they close the door; they kiss the hand--the hand they'd like to cut off--slowly." But he is prepared to deal with the world as it is: "The world of flesh is a vile place--and I'm behind it all the way."
The introduction—electronically altered violin, viola and accordion--sets the forbidding tone, and momentum begins to build gradually with the introduction of an electric guitar playing a double-eighth-note pickup to strums on the downbeats, following by a series of eighth notes under the first verse. It is joined by piano chords on the first beat of each measure for the second half. The piano becomes more active as the verse proceeds, then harmonizing clarinets enter in the first interlude, followed by the warning, "never trust a man who enjoys his hopelessness a bit too much." The second interlude is orchestral in flavor, continuing through the following verse, joined by an electric bass guitar reinforcing the rhythm. Vocal harmonies by Sarah Holtschlag enter halfway through, preserving deference to humanity even when humanity acts brutally. Then the orchestra drops away and the piano jumps up an octave or so with near honky-tonk intervals played in an eighth-note pattern. Sacred Thoughts is forbidding throughout but its building momentum signals a tough guy, tempered by the abandonment of idealism, prepared to handle a nasty world as it presents itself.
With no more than these four songs, Safran proves that he has the capacity to use music to arouse feelings that we all have. He does it elegantly, using his expressive voice modestly but carefully against a backdrop of perfect music.
Rocky love affairs form the backdrop of all four, but his ability to vary the way the music helps tell each story distinctly. The creativity of his verbal messages sung in his soft, expressive voice, explore different facets of experiences common to human existence.
Failed romance is a metaphor for much else, as suggested by the song titles. “Starving Time,” for example, conventionally refers to the winter of 1609-1610 that devastated the Jamestown, Virginia colony, leaving 60 of 500 colonists alive. If one knew the Starving Time historical reference, one could easily spin a tale in his mind while listening to the song of political betrayal and alienation. Or one, knowing something of the music community from which Safran comes, could imagine that the phrase starving time refers to the hard economic circumstances of a bunch of indie musicians dreaming of stardom (“I thought you were mine”) and then giving up music to make a living in humdrum jobs (“buttoned-up clerk”).
But, ironically, Safran may too good a storyteller. The specificity of his references to love affairs is sufficiently powerful that they tend to squeeze out alternative story lines that might be suggested by the theme of the song.
Safran deserves more attention than he has received so far. Understatement in his music is a strength. Understatement in his promotional efforts is not. His bare-bones MySpace page deprives potential fans of knowing anything about him—only one picture and no videos or blog entries, though he does have 850 MySpace “friends.” He has no separate web page discoverable by a Google search on his name, except for one YouTube clip showing him performing at the Empty Bottle in Chicago a year ago.
Listen to his music and spread the word. He, himself, will surely reduce his invisibility by establishing a far more robust Web presence. Someone who hears about David Safran, should not come up cold by doing a Google search on the name.
Henry H. Perritt, Jr.