“Literate” can be used as a pejorative when describing a songwriter, but Andy Friedman puts his book smarts to good use. On his third album, Laserbeams and Dreams, Friedman drops casual allusions to Robert Henri and Georgia O’Keeffe into the middle of workmanlike, straightforward country-folk songs, using his cultural literacy as a means to add context and weight to his otherwise plainspoken observations. Unfortunately, that extra weight occasionally causes the album to buckle: Despite Friedman’s attempts at a high-minded form of irony and humor, Laserbeams and Dreams is kind of a bummer.
The sparseness of the album’s production does little to liven up Friedman’s songs. One of the record’s selling points is that it was recorded and mixed in a single 24-hour period, with just a single overdub for the bottleneck slide on “Old Pennsylvania.” Friedman, producer and multi-instrumentalist David Goodrich, and upright bassist Stephan Crump left their performances as is, without much planning for the album’s overall sound. That approach leaves a good deal of breathing room in songs like “Nothing with My Time” and “Going Home (Drifter’s Blessing),” but it also doesn’t allow for much distance from the singularly downbeat tone of the performances. Friedman’s songs aren’t flashy, but the lack of embellishment in the production or even selective editing makes Laserbeams and Dreams more than a little monotonous.
It’s the quality of Friedman’s songwriting that ultimately makes the album worthwhile. “Motel on the Lake” draws a clever parallel between a dilapidated resort in the Catskills and death, even referencing the ghost of a woman “who once danced like Jennifer Grey.” Even better is the raucous, hard-driving blues of “Roll On, John Herald,” the album’s lone uptempo cut, a tribute to the late folk singer for whom Friedman played as an opening act early in his career. Friedman demands to know who’s playing Herald’s guitar, and the song functions both as a tribute and a greater meditation on mortality. “Quiet Blues” revels in a contemporary brand of disaffect and detachment, while “It’s Time for Church” rebukes traditional views of religion in favor of finding purpose in art and personal experience.
This is heady material, and Friedman’s a gifted wordsmith who is more than capable of handling it with the respect and insight it deserves. Even when he interjects a bit of humor into the proceedings (starting with the album’s ironic, wide-eyed title, and including an aborted attempt at a spoken-word recitation on “Schroon Lake”), Friedman doesn’t pull his punches. While that makes Laserbeams and Dreams a dense, focused record, it also makes it perhaps a bit too glum for its own good.