In the closing scene of All The Ghosts, Stephen Bartolomei enters the stage alone.
Over fingerpicked guitar, his singing starts low, firmly rooted in the notes. The latter syllables of his lyrics sometimes dissolve into tremulous vibrato. Other times, as he ascends the staff, the words wrap themselves with a wisp at the end, breathed sounds like tiny earthquakes following the humble roar of a passing train.
“Pillars tremble, I am frightened,” he sings.
Over time, Bartolomei’s comrades join him with staggered entrances. Dan McCarthy gently sets down chords on the piano, some thousands of notes after he first started playing with Bartolomei in the Omaha band Mal Madrigal and in his own McCarthy Trenching. Another longtime collaborator Ben Brodin splits McCarthy’s whole notes on vibraphone. You hear the bass guitar of Ryan Fox, who met Bartolomei’s music some 10 years ago in the very first iteration of Mal Madrigal. And on Fender Bass VI, Mike Saklar — who once taught Bartolomei guitar in addition to serving as a bandmate — rounds out this song’s cast of characters, supported by Brodin’s drums.
It’s like the closing music to a film, Bartolomei says, as the credits roll.
“One thing moving away from Omaha that I’ve realized is part of the way I’m friends with people is by playing music together,” he says. “So in a lot of ways, recording the album and working on music is sort of an expression of our friendship ultimately.”
In New York, where Bartolomei moved from Omaha almost four years ago, his brand of singer/songwriter material often encourages hired guns as backing musicians. But when it came time to record All The Ghosts, Bartolomei’s fourth proper full-length, at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio in fall 2012, he called upon his comrades back in Omaha to join him.
“I’m kind of shy with all this stuff, so having a group of guys that I’ve been playing with in different bands and in this band for years, and am friends with, that mellows things out a bit,” Bartolomei says with a laugh.
Completing the list of musicians on the 12-track album released this Saturday at Slowdown is John Kotchian, who shares percussion duties with Brodin. It’s Kotchian, for example, who plays on the penultimate track, “Weary Blues.” The louder, darker offering juxtaposes itself with Bartolomei’s more melodic, lighter folk.
“I’m really excited about what I see as the diversity in sounds [on All The Ghosts],” Bartolomei says. “It’s something I’m always trying to do with a record. With the prior records, they each are hopefully taking a step forward where the darker stuff is as dark as I go, and the lighter stuff is as light as I go, using the arrangement and sometimes the singing to be the linking factor.”
Going back 10 years to his first record, we find Bartolomei with a self-titled CD-R, but listeners might have a hard time finding that album. Billed as the “Reluctant Rock Star” in a 2004 Lazy-i story, Bartolomei was reticent to let the world in on his music early on. He says that although he isn’t much different now, he’s evolved to be more willing to share his music, and in turn, he has labored over the production and precise manufacturing of his records.
In the sequencing of All The Ghosts, for instance, Bartolomei paid mind to the physical limitations of vinyl, how certain sounds are reproduced better at certain positions on the record. The album, he says, was made without the use of computers or any other digital process.
“The master was cut using a rare Studer A80VU MK II 1/2-inch tape machine equipped with full analog preview electronics at Salt Mastering in Brooklyn, New York,” he writes in the album’s description on Bandcamp. “Translation: This was how records of the classic era were cut, requires the unique talent of the cutting engineer, and is a craft in itself.”
But that’s not to say Bartolomei can’t hear the small imperfections. Recorded over three days at Electrical Audio — “the birthplace of my favorite records,” he says — the album features “both a bit of fire and fragility behind each performance,” Bartolomei writes. “With the completion of each ‘tightrope take,’ the six of us claimed a small victory, one song at a time.”
And now a bit more removed from the recording, he still says, “I would probably fall ill if I heard the album again.”
Back in 2004, Bartolomei was terrified of playing shows, too. He still is, but in recognizing the value of the direct communication of live shows, he’s learned to enjoy performance more, and of his hopes for the future, touring is at the top of the list.
But first, after Saturday’s concert at Slowdown, he’ll have to take one trip back to New York. As Bartolomei enjoys the holidays with friends and family in Omaha — checking out Almost Music, stopping by his old workplace at Blue Line Coffee and seeing a show or two at O’Leaver’s along the way — he says it’s the people that he’ll miss the most when he returns to Manhattan, playing the bar beneath his apartment and working as an audiobook director and engineer.
“There’s something great to friends getting together and feeling comfortable.”
Michael Todd is Hear Nebraska’s managing editor. He hopes Al Madrigal will learn one day that he had a hand in killing the great band name of Mal Madrigal. Reach Michael at email@example.com.