An old saying about the Champs-Elysses: If you stand on its corner long enough, you’ll run into someone you know. This adage is also true for Boston rock legend Rick Berlin‘s career. Berlin has honed his barbed sense of pop music over almost four decades, fronting the ambitious bands Orchestra Luna and Berlin Airport and playing a weekly residency at the drag bar Jacques Cabaret.
A series of very fortunate events positioned Berlin as an unlikely overnight success. A longtime fan sent him a check for $10,000 out of the blue, which allowed him to record his latest long-player, Always On Insane. Not long after its completion, rustic rock favorites Dr. Dog invited Berlin to open for them at their recent Boston engagement, introducing him to a younger audience.
Listening to Always On Insane feels like being welcomed into a warm—if slightly overgrown and off-kilter—home. For this album, Berlin has collaborated with a crew that made a name for themselves playing live karaoke at a club in his home neighborhood. As a result of both parties’ strong sense of community pride, Always On Insane is invested with a great love of community—both literally and in a grander, more figurative sense.
On a few of the songs, Berlin drew direct inspiration from the cast of characters in his home. The songs “Hilary (Galway Girl)” and “Karaoke” stand tall among the song lineup. Berlin’s lyrics are shot through with a great sense of detail, the melodies swing, and the Nickel and Dime Band backs him up with verve and goodwill. In other songs, Berlin takes an unflinching look at the pains of living within a community, as on the poignant “Kitchy” and the It Gets Better-inspired “As Long As It Takes.” The Nickel and Dime Band plays as a tight, cohesive unit, and at the album’s best you can hear a playful push-me/pull-you dynamic between Berlin and his bandmates. Berlin helmed the album himself, and the live production serves the album well.
The exemplary production and lively performances are at times the only things holding the album together. The 40-minute time constraints of a record album served Berlin’s talents better than the 70-minute running time of a CD, as having less time forced him to edit some of the material that didn’t work as well or hadn’t quite coalesced.
“Beer Belly” illustrates that point the best. On paper, a rock song on the un-rock-and-roll topic of the body’s aging should have been a hit. While the lyrics are well observed and the Karla Devito-esque vocal hook catchy, the song coasts along on a decent arrangement of a boring melody. Had Berlin invested the time in a rewrite and saved the song for a future album, it might have worked a little better. The album does seem a little overlong and bottom-heavy, and a release of two or three EPs instead of one long album may have ultimately served these songs a little better. Berlin is a great live performer, though, and some of the songs that don’t work as well may be great in live performance.
Rick Berlin is the kind of artist one wants to see do well. His work is at worst very good and at best life changing, and after the major-label ordeals he’s experienced, a success is in order. While Always On Insane doesn’t consistently hit the dizzy highs of Berlin’s work with Orchestra Luna or the Shelly Winters project, the album does show his charms to the rest of the world.
Always On Insane is out today from The Whitehaus Family Record. You can listen to the album and purchase it from Rick Berlin’s Bandcamp site. A record release hometown show (and soon-to-be-event) is planned for October 25 is planned for the Magic Room Gallery in Allston, MA.