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Ray's Vast Basement

Ray's Vast Basement is bound to be one of the most refreshing and satisfying musical experiences you've had in a long time. The amorphous Northern California ensemble plays warm, organic, earthy rock infused with a strong sense of narrative and purpose. Tom Waits's gravel-voiced tales of the weird, walleyed misfits and lowlifes of the world and Bruce Springsteen's ghostly Nebraska-era Americana parables both come to mind occasionally, as does the music of such great American storytellers as Ramblin' Jack Elliott, John Prine, and Bob Dylan. The project grew out of the twisted and brilliant mind of singer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Bernson, though it has since grown into a loose conglomeration featuring a dozen musicians. Bernson's inspiration is the fictional hundred-thousand-year history of an invented cave, the titular Ray's Vast Basement, which, following its 1579 discovery by Sir Francis Drake, supposedly passed through the hands of missionaries, shippers, a lighthouse keeper, bootleggers, suffragists, hippies, surfers, and ravers, before finally being repossessed by an international investment firm and converted to a seaside resort. Bernson loosely roots his little musical fables in the history of the cave and of Drakesville, the city that sits on the cliffs beneath which the cave is hidden, and the imaginary region of Crimson Bay which contains both cave and town. In doing so, Bernson establishes an alternate, peculiarly Northern Californian cosmology, sort of like a pop-rock equivalent of Faulkner's legendary Yoknapatawpha County, with its own clandestine geography, its own set of characters and conflicts, its own legends and mythology. It's exquisitely rendered and deeply compelling; with each listen you get a bit deeper into this mysterious world.

The songs unfold slowly, in a rambling, unhurried style. Bernson's voice, dusky and warm, mahogany in color, sandpapery in texture, was just made for telling stories. The music is almost ridiculously lush, beautiful dusty arrangements full of violins, harmonica, plucked guitar, soprano and tenor sax, trumpet, slide guitar, bongos, and atmospheric textures that feature elements of heartland rock, folk and country, cabaret, and even vocal jazz, with tastes of flamenco and Afro-Cuban music. This music enriches Bernson's elegies to Drakesville, just as the chapters of Bernson's secret history give meaning to RVB's music.

Ray's Vast Basement's debut release is called On the Banks of the Time. It comes with a 32-page songbook and 58 flashcards detailing the history of the legendary cave and surrounding area. It's a lovely record, this self-described "concept album," which will remind you anew of the endless, often forgotten possibilities afforded by pop music.

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