Music Review: Howard Iceberg & The Titanics' 'Smooth Sailing'
Howard Iceberg & the Titanics
Putting the name Howard Iceberg & the Titanics next to an image of a sinking ship on a CD cover creates an impression of doom-and-gloom, but in a hokey, cartoonish way. Add the title Smooth Sailing, and you get something else: irony, or at least smart-aleck cynicism.
There is something fatalistic about Smooth Sailing, beyond the shipwreck cover. In songs with titles like “You Broke a Heart Today,” “I Don’t Feel a Thing,” “The Hard Way” and “To See You Cry,” failed romance abounds. People come together and come apart, and seem to share an awareness that the end is inevitable. They expect things to go badly. Sometimes their expectations are pleasantly upturned, as in “I Got a Letter,” where a surprise reconciliation arrives in the mail. But mostly not.
Iceberg’s voice itself often feels on the verge of demise. It has a Dylanesque whine and an extreme fragility, even when he’s projecting a grave sense of doom. When he aims for sweetness, such as in the come-on “You Should Be Staying,” that voice gives a stranger and more pronounced impression that it’s about to twist itself into oblivion, or evaporate even. Backing vocals harmonize as support, strengthening the sweetness he’s shooting for. In portraying a lonely man at the end of his rope, Iceberg’s lyrics seem to comment on the struggle his singing voice is engaged in, completing the picture.
Mood-wise, the songs on Smooth Sailing fall along a continuum of that emotional struggle: from absolute pain to the bittersweet acceptance of it, with occasional romantic interludes that serve as surprises. “Life’s Supposed to Hurt” feels like it’s summarizing the album’s outlook, as if a hardened, wise elder is giving characters from all the other songs an earnest but rough perspective on how life works, like he knows where they’ve been and what troubles are coming. “The appetizer and the main course/it was enough to choke a horse,” Iceberg sings, “now look what they have brought you for dessert.” For a moment I imagine him as the narrator of a horror film.
But for all its pessimism, the overall tone of Smooth Sailing is romantic. “You Should Be Staying” and “You and Your Hazel Eyes” — where the singer’s intended has not just hazel eyes but, memorably, a “Brooklyn mouth” — are the most overt examples. In the lyrics the romance usually ends in disappointment, but the music is romantic, too, conveying sentimental feelings through instrumental passages and sounds: a bassline out of a Motown song, a guitar that leaps out from the ‘70s.
Iceberg has admitted a tendency to build a song around a particular piece, a sound or approach, without over-analyzing the quality of the other parts. That, combined with his prolific nature — in 2011 he released a seven-disc box set of new music — may be what leads songs where lyrics are predictable: “The night is growing cold/this loneliness gets old/my heart’s been bought and sold.” But other times, a word or image that might have been thrown in just as hastily comes across as a pleasant surprise.
Along with the bittersweet romance of the songs, there’s infatuation here between Iceberg (real name, Howard Eisberg) and the Kansas City music scene. Besides the four veteran Titanics, 16 local musicians contributed to the album. Chad Rex plays guitar and sings on nine of the 13 songs; Phil Wade of The Wilders is on four songs; a wide assortment of musicians who appear on a song or two each will be recognizable to local listeners.
For all of that, sometimes Smooth Sailing is as much about American history as anything else. The country’s story is a story of people who fall “through the cracks in the land of liberty,” as Iceberg puts it in one song. There’s the polite, bank-robbing outlaw “Frank McGraw” treading the line between noble success and tragic mistake while transitioning from a horse to a car. In Arizona, a megaphone-toting ghost (“Arizona Spirit”) tells a story of heartbreak on the highway.
The final song, “This One’s for the Kids,” depicts one of the troubled folk heroes central to the American story: a whiskey-drinking, hard-traveling musician with a soft spot for the family he never sees. “It seems like I’m always either flying or falling/because liquor is my curse/and music is my calling,” Iceberg sings. The grit in Iceberg’s singing, this story of personal struggle, the sinking ship on the cover — in one moment they all meld together. That ship on the cover, about to go underwater, is a person, a country, an idea, a heart.