Music aficionados love nothing more than to brag about unknown groups they enjoy in no small part because of the credibility that comes from having obscure taste. Just about everyone has at least one friend who loves to complain that they liked bands “before they were cool,” and distance themselves from those groups once they have mainstream appeal. When I discovered the folky, sentimental ballads of Son of the Velvet Rat on the radio, spreading the word seemed the appropriate thing to do. But after listening to their 2021 release, Solitary Company, I started feeling conflicted. On the one hand, the band has standout songwriting that deserves recognition, but on the other, something about the music feels delicate, almost like too much popularity would spoil the effect. Am I just a music hipster?
Son Of The Velvet Rat, a folk duo from Austria, consists of husband-and-wife Georg Altziebler and Marija Kanizaj. The couple made their musical debut in 2003 in Graz, Austria, and after moderate success locally with their first few albums, decided to move to Joshua Tree, California in 2013 to experience the expansive freedom of the Mojave Desert. The couple is still fairly popular at home in Austria and is slowly but surely developing a loyal following in the United States. Altziebler plays guitar and sings while Kanizaj provides accordion and organ.
Solitary Company, released March 19, 2021, might be best described as folk noir. The instrumentation on the album is a little more fleshed out than their early releases, but still includes mostly sparse textures that create a nostalgic atmosphere. Altziebler’s lyrics tackle themes of love and loneliness, but occasionally venture into darker territories like murder, where his gravelly whispered tones evoke singer Tom Waits. The influence of the dusty, arid Mojave makes its way onto many tracks like “Stardust,” with its simple, driving beat and whistled tune. These simple musical building blocks appear on a number of other songs, and it’s clear that in spite of the mature lyrical themes, the album is a close cousin of other garage/desert rock bands like The Black Keys. “When the Lights Go Down” is one of the most expressive songs on the album, and one can taste the cool desert night air in the gentle harmonies and scant instrumentation. The popular single, “Beautiful Disarray,” demonstrates another range of moods present on this album, taking a more accessible route with a bubbly pop chorus backed by Hammond organ and a horn line. By and large, even the happier songs on the album seem to have a tinge of melancholy that is a signature of Son of the Velvet Rat.
Listening to Solitary Company is an intimate experience, like sharing a secret with a close friend. Altziebler bares his soul with moving lyrics that cover a diverse range of emotions, and I think that’s why I hesitated to share this album when I discovered it. The duo’s new home near Joshua Tree National Park is an apt metaphor for their music, in that too large an influx of tourists in the park would make it difficult to truly appreciate the quiet majesty of the landscape. Likewise, this album feels almost too personal to be shared with a broader audience as a commodity for fear of listeners ignoring the messages embedded in the lyrics. Son of the Velvet Rat no doubt wants their music heard, but the emotional qualities of this album demand an audience who will treat its music with the utmost respect. So, do consider listening to Solitary Company, but only when you are prepared to experience something deeply personal. Maybe I am a music snob after all, but Son of the Velvet Rat has created something valuable, and it’s worth preserving.