Album of the Week: Where are the Arms

Gabriel Kahane is often compared to Sufjan Stevens and Rufus Wainwright (both of whom he’s collaborated with in the past). It’s a lot to live up to, but to that already high bar I’ll add Ben Folds and Randy Newman, if only for Kahane’s similar sense of musical theatre, playful storytelling and ability to set the stage for a very human narrative.

Kahane’s latest release, Where are the Arms, is not only clever, interesting and musically satisfying – it’s a Great Record. To me, the difference between a really wonderful album (of which there are many) and a Great Record (of which there are very few), lies somewhere in the work’s ambition, depth of emotion, honesty, complexity, immediacy, warmth, timelessness, personality and universality.

In “Charming Disease,” for instance, the arrangements tip you off that something really special is at work here, and then the lyrics begin to sink in and you find that it’s a deeply poignant song about the tragedy of addiction. Elsewhere, “Calabash and Catamaran” manages to be both a mind-bendingly polyrhythmic tune in overlapping and alternating bars of 5, 7 and 8 – and at the same time an incredibly catchy pop song that will get stuck in your head for days. “LA” is, quite simply, a timeless masterpiece of a song, and deserves to be as important to people as, say, “Fire and Rain” – and for many of the same reasons.

But there’s not a dry spell on the album. It’s coherent, consistent, eminently repayable, layered and rewarding. For this listener, Where Are The Arms effortlessly connects itself to personal history, and becomes an important work within a private musical biography in the same way as some Joni Mitchell or Van Morrison albums.

So if we’re invoking names like Sufjan Stevens, Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds and Randy Newman, let it not be for the reason that Kahane sounds a bit like them, but because here is a group of songwriters who all have achieved the uncommon feat of creating a truly Great Record – and Gabriel Kahane has just joined their ranks.

Listen to the full album and explore more from Gabriel Kahane.


  1. flex
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    dubber, thanks for bringing Sufjan Stevens to my attention. He is obviously insane, but manages to put that “I-don’t-understand-what-he’s-doing-there-but-I-like-it” smile on my face.
    And thanks for your blog, you are one of the few people who manage to really describe music with their words, thus fulfilling what an album review is about: inform a reader about the music (and the lyrics) of an artist. Many reviewers seem to forget that.

    btw: my choice would’ve been Newman’s late work “Bad Love”, even if I seem to be quite alone with that opinion

  2. Posted January 14, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    I’m not sure of the pronunciation. I’m guessing it’s probably Karn (or possibly Ka-hayne) but I never thought to ask.

    The Sufjan Stevens masterpiece is generally recognised to be ‘Illinoise’ (and it’s one of my top 5 records of the past decade) – but actually I think ‘Age of Adz‘ (available on Bandcamp) is a more ambitious work – definitely worth checking out.

    The Randy Newman albums for me are ‘Little Criminals’ and ‘Good Old Boys’.

    Hope you enjoy…

  3. flex
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this suggestion – this is getting better every time I listen to it. Reminds me a little bit of mid-seventies King Crimson, only more pop and less paranoia :)
    Just two questions: How does one pronounce his last name?
    And second, I’m curious: what are your choices for the great records of the mentioned artists? I don’t know Sufjan Stevens yet (a gap I’m willing to fill), for Rufus it’s definitely “Want I”, for Ben Folds I’d say “Rockin the suburbs” and Randy Newman? He has several great records…

  4. Posted December 21, 2011 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    This is a great album!