Pay only cursory attention to the eclectic rave-up outfit known as the Billy Nayer Show, and you might get the impression that vocalist/songwriter Cory McAbee is some sort of misanthrope. "When you see how I've suffered/ you'll know I am tougher than you," he whisper-sings on the group's sixth CD, "Goodbye Straplight Sarentino, I Will Miss You." Just another alterna-rocker out to build a career of pseudo-confessional bloodletting, right?
Not by half. McAbee, a phenomenally brilliant musician, writer, filmmaker and visual artist, could also be the most genuinely enthusiastic person in show business. (A San Francisco-to-New York transplant, he greeted last year's massive power blackout as a chance for quiet relaxation at home.) But like all creative visionaries, he's boundlessly curious, and that curiosity manifests itself in musical narratives that espy human vulnerability from a full 360 degrees of vantage points -- maybe more. "Honest songs," he calls them, and they run the range from the aforementioned "Suffering" (which trades verses recited by the toughened-up narrator and the personified figure of pain itself) to "My Cat," in which the healing power of pets is lauded with love-song directness.
"There's not really anything in there that I wrote without actually taking a side," McAbee says. Of late, he's been struck by people's inability to take responsibility for their own impulses. Take his old stomping grounds, for instance: "I love San Francisco, don't get me wrong. But I do think it was the birthplace of passive aggression."
As recorded and performed by BNS -- a 15-year-old concern whose "revolving-door" lineup has never included anyone named Billy Nayer -- McAbee's tunes get a suitably empathic treatment. Bass and drums lock into a rollicking triplet groove, mixolydian-scale guitar lines alight like fuzzy sunspots, and McAbee tests the expressive potential of everybody's favorite Sunday-school instrument, the autoharp.
McAbee's vocals frequently take on a timbre of exaggerated drama, yet that tendency toward "riding-on-a-horse kind of singing" doesn't do anything to obfuscate McAbee's Zappa-esque ear for the conversationally mundane ('That was some day, without a doubt/ Happy Easter, you guys/ That was the day when Slim walked out/ singing, "Happy Easter, you guys"').
To McAbee, the new album sets up a "kind of harsh dream landscape." Presiding over it all is the figure of Straplight Sarentino. The character is described in the album's lyrics as an imaginary friend but McAbee says Straplight was, in fact, inspired by a real-life acquaintance who blurted out the name in her sleep.
"When I asked her what it was -- while she was sleeping -- she said it was a fragrance." He laughs. "I knew she was lyin'."
The record's 23 songs are divvied up between two discs, in order to force-simulate the mini-breather once afforded by having to turn over a vinyl album. And while McAbee says a single disc would have run long, the new tunes only average about two minutes in length. Combine that brevity with the band's appropriation of assorted American forms, and you have ready-made movie music -- the soundtrack to a midnight feature that's playing only in your head.
That soundtrack affinity isn't too surprising, given that film has been an integral part of BNS from the beginning. Gigs have included the screening of the band's independently produced experimental short films, as well as its magnum opus, "The American Astronaut," a relentlessly inventive space opera that won the Jury Award for Original Vision at the 2001 Florida Film Festival.
Though BNS's upcoming concert at Will's Pub won't be incorporating any of their usual multimedia elements -- relying instead on energetic playing by McAbee, longtime drummer/producer Billy Lurie and bassist Frank Swart -- McAbee is currently creating storyboards for a follow-up feature, "Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest." Its story uses a lycanthrope and his pursuer as metaphors for a vanished code of virtue: They have "qualities that were once admired as qualities of heroes hundreds of years ago," McAbee explains. "But there's no longer a place for those qualities in society."
A little nostalgia with our sleepytime role-playing?
"Trying to take the high road is an old standard of strength," he says. "We're in a society that likes to embrace our weaknesses and flaws and wear them on our sleeves as points of valor, rather than bucking up and bearing what you have to go through. And not taking it out on everybody around you."
Minutes later, he apologizes, worrying that, by some chance, anything he's said has come off "preachy."
Thesis proven. Misanthropes don't apologize.