In the three-way Venn diagram made up of musical theater, jazz and bizarre lyrics, there exist two bands: '70s soft rockers Steely Dan and Missoula’s own Pale People.
The similarities are more foundational than audible, however. Where the Dan skew toward light jazz and meticulous solos, Pale People lean full on into their Steven Sondheim-esque alternate reality, where musicals could (and would) be written about Godzilla, arsonists, failed suicide attempts and the sinking of the Titanic.
Those are just the themes covered on their new record “Absent Friends” — never mind previous album cuts about porn, serial killer abductions and government spying.
Most songs on “Absent Friends” feature singer and pianist Mack Gilcrest singing the dense, wordy lyrics like they’re the climactic moment at the end of Act I. Bassist Kurt Skrivseth and drummer Austin Graef provide some funk, some jazz, some syncopation, to back him up.
Album opener “Night Atlas” is from the perspective of a man looking at the sky and feeling nostalgic about his childhood, one where he sat on his father’s shoulders looking at constellations and was told “this world is yours.”
That childhood though, was “years before the infernal burning began to torch the land and scorch the sand/erased any trace of direction.”
Now there are no stars, and not much of anything worth living for. Much less a “the world is yours” sentiment. Sound familiar?
“Homecoming” shifts perspective to Gojira, rising out of the ocean to return home to Tokyo, bells, trumpet and a busy percussion rhythm soundtracking the lizard’s emotional walk through the city.
“I am a mountain proud and beautiful, see me rising from the beach … I could destroy this world with joy.”
“Mercy (I)” details a cutter’s warped euphoria at dragging a blade across her skin and seeing what’s inside before realizing she’s gone too far. The song then shifts perspective outside of the woman.
“The whole world hears some shrieking girl/on her carpet, slowly ending,” and later, “have mercy/and endure this flood … don’t you dare ascend … this is not the end.”
“Underworld” focuses on a prisoner in solitary confinement, ostensibly in the modern world, due to his orange shirt, toilet and food pushed through a slot.
That’s before the chorus hits with the reveal that “there is a manticore in this dungeon and our company is falling to its claws/but if even one companion rolls a 20 with a broadsword/we will slay the beast.”
Oh, so that’s the song about “tabletop fantasy board games in solitary confinement.” (I learned it is definitely possible to play a solo D&D campaign).
Much like the Dan, Pale People excel at making one dance and get down with songs, rhythms and lyrics they never thought possible before. But try not headbanging to the overwrought chorus to “Night Atlas” or boogieing to the funky drums that lead off the titular “Absent Friends.”
The group also buffer their piano-bass-drum trio with lots of guest musicians — 15 are credited in all, from the brass and woodwind players who flesh out the chorus of “Night Atlas,” or the trumpet and violin that texture several songs.
Fourteen of those guests are credited on album closer “Absent Friends,” which ends in a controlled squall of banjo, saxophone and jaw harp.
“That was really, really good,” Gilcrest says on record just after the song ends, a little out of breath. “That was take one of ‘Absent Friends.’"
Maybe that’s the biggest difference between Pale People and Steely Dan, over all others: They can nail it in one take.