Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are” (1963) continues to be one of the most influential children’s books. Most anyone can recall its iconic cover, if not its young and imaginative protagonist, Max, and his adventures as “King of the Wild Things.”
“Max is surrounded by structure and rules and responsibilities, like bedtime, and all seem arbitrary like a lot of the realities of our lives,” The Pinkerton Raid’s Jesse James DeConto remembers. “Max just wants to escape to a fantasy world that actually feels more real.”
As DeConto wrote songs for The Pinkerton Raid’s latest album, “Where the Wildest Spirits Fly” (released May 2018), he came across some parallelisms between the album and book. As it were, he asked Adam Neubauer to design an album cover with Sendak’s work in mind. The colors and style are immediately recognizable, but rather than a dozing “Wild Thing” in the forest, DeConto asked Neabauer to think of images which appear throughout their sound tracks.
While writing the record DeConto thought of today’s driving societal issues—climate change, Black Lives Matter, oil pipelines, and capitalism’s impact over the centuries. “It has turned our flesh and blood, the land, the water and the sky into commodities, to be bought and sold,” he details. “Our society seems to be ruled by fear right now. How can we recover what it means to be human?”
Thus the song “Thin Places” was written. Honing in on tensions between humanity and a world controlled by money, “Thin Places” is about wild places where people can feel human and not live in fear of one another.
“When my partner, Julie, heard the lyric, ‘Meet me in the thin places / where the wildest spirits fly,’ she said it reminded her of [the book],’” DeConto explains. “Obviously, the words themselves sound similar, but even Sendak’s story resonates with [our] album. . . . This album is all about humans belonging to one another and to Earth.”
The Pinkerton Raid will take the concept of their album one step further when they play at Walking Tall’s summer BBQ at Good Hops this weekend. It will be a day full of live music, disc golf, corn-hole, BBQ chicken and veggie burgers, with all the fixin’s, to benefit Walking Tall Wilmington. The local nonprofit provides lunches, clean water and other community outreach initiatives for folks without permanent housing.
“We’re just happy to bring attention to Walking Tall Wilmington and celebrate the dignity of all humans,” DeConto notes.
DeConto wrote all lyrics on “Wildest Spirits.” He tapped his sister, Katie, sister-in-law, Caroline, and friend, Alex Hill, to help with vocal harmonies. Bassist Jon Depue and drummer Scott McFarlane shaped their parts. Producer David Wimbish played most keys, vibraphone and some guitars, as well as accordion in “Sweet Pitchers of Mercy.” Wimbish also helped craft the brass section with trumpeter/trombonist Graham Dickey and saxophonist Tony Sali. “David and engineer Jeff Crawford deserve a lot of credit for editing our parts and adding their own,” DeConto continues.
As opposed to 2017’s “Tolerance Ends, Love Begins,” “Wildest Spirits” has The Pinkerton Raid moving away from performance-art and centering on songwriting. “Its musical references are much more classic and familiar than anything we’ve done before,” DeConto clarifies. “I was thinking about and listening to people like Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Carole King, and Bob Dylan. Most songs are meant to be understood and maybe even inviting people to sing along. It’s less about self-expression; I wanted to write the album more for other people than anything I’ve done in the past. I hope the music offers people a lot of hand-holds that remind them of mid-20th-century artists they know and love.”
Like a storybook, “Wildest Spirits” is full of colorful and dark characters, scenes and narratives. Early on in “The Boys From Lowell” listeners are introduced to three kids growing up in Lowell, Mass., in different eras. “The last verse is about my life growing up there in the ‘80s,” DeConto notes of a time when all he cared about was “Star Wars” and superheroes.
“But Lowell has a dark history of child-labor in the cotton mills in the 1800s,” he continues, “and the first verse is about the kids I used to learn about on school field trips. The middle verse is about Jack Kerouac, the great wanderer and Beat writer, who also grew up in Lowell. It’s a song about freedom, hope and possibility.”
Musically and lyrically, “Stella Maris” sounds a bit more ominous than “The Boys from Lowell.” “Well, ‘Stella Maris’ is about death, so, yeah, I guess it is ominous,” DeConto quips.
“The House of Green” paints a bleak picture, with commentary based on North Carolina’s consumption of resources by none other than Duke Energy. Not unlike Wilmington’s Market Street heading toward the river, DeConto describes Durham’s tall, majestic trees lining the streets near downtown. Like here in ILM, they compete for space with utility lines.
“So every now and then Duke will come along and cut out the middles of trees to make room for their powerlines,” DeConto tells. “I wanted to write about this in a fanciful way, so I imagined those trees as a great manor house in the English countryside, like Downton Abbey, under attack by its enemies. Duke’s CEO happens to be named Lynn Good, so I had a little fun with a character named The Good Duchess Lynn.”
The band’s approach to the music and melodies of each song ultimately help support their narratives. For more symbolic and metaphorical songs, like “Meteors” or “The House of Green,” the music helps emphasize dynamics and feelings. DeConto utilizes his voice as an instrument to evoke emotion and a sense of place in “Windmills in the Fog,” which has Midwest roots.
“I was thinking about Tom Petty and an American heartland kind of sound,” he details. “I tend to see a difference between songwriting and performance art. I think a lot of music that gets written today, even the best of it, is more like performance art than classic songwriting. These songs can make you feel something or move your body even if you don’t immediately understand the lyrics.”