By Mark Guarino
Paul Burch is a musical time traveler: four years ago he released Meridian Rising, a pristine concept album in the voice of Jimmie Rodgers, the greatest pop star of the Great Depression era. The choice made sense, since Burch likewise is an expert stylist who meshes past popular genres but always manages to sound like himself—he can even stand out when working with artists who are distinctive in their own right, such as art-country collective Lambchop and Chicago country-punks the Waco Brothers. On his own, Burch is more refined; think of him as Nashville’s answer to Nick Lowe or Joe Henry. On the new Light Sensitive, he’s surrounded by a group of tasteful players, including multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin, slide guitarist Luther Dickinson, and upright bassist Dennis Crouch. They swirl textures together with the deft touch of jazz musicians, moving the music into intimate spaces that are both nocturnal and joyful. There’s hardly a pre-Beatles rock genre that Burch doesn’t touch: the album includes an early rock ’n’ roll shuffle (“Boogie Back”), a country-pop tune (“The Tell”), a twinkly instrumental (“Glider”), and a bluesy number (“You Must Love Someone”) that sounds like it could be an unearthed Rodgers B side. Musically, these songs are impressionistic memories of another time, but they’re alluring in large part thanks to their present-tense storytelling. Burch sings, croons, and yelps in the voices of different characters: exotic party hosts, jet-era travelers, Mardi Gras revelers in small-town Alabama, even a bookshop customer who discovers his fortune told in the pages of a “book of dreams.” The spark for Light Sensitive was an arts commission Burch received to musically document the life of southern raconteur Eugene Walter, whose resumé includes cofounding The Paris Review and serving as a translator for Federico Fellini—but you don’t need to know the details to enjoy the songs. What resonates from Walter’s life is the flamboyant fun Burch is clearly having with songs that skip across genres and geographies. Throughout “On My Flight to Spain,” a tremolo guitar cuts between verses of a lonely traveler imaging himself cast in Hemingway’s life—and though the plane hasn’t landed by the song’s end, we’re still enjoying the view.