There is a moment in life when one is old enough to know regret and young enough for it to still feel fresh; when regret is a challenge and not a burden. To help us prolong and seize this moment, Sarah Rabdau & Self Employed Assassins offer us “Free as Thieves,” their sophomore release.
Less confessional but every bit as passionate as the band’s previous release, Free as Thieves offers a set of vignettes concerning characters who are taking a long look back and deciding which way to turn. “If the planets aligned as designed, I’d still find a way to be chronically dissatisfied,” quips the heroine of “67 Mustang,” the album’s opener, which is somehow both wistful and optimistic
Much like the young people who populate Bruce Springsteen’s Jersey Shore or the reluctant heroes who navigate David Bowie’s post-apocalypse, Rabdau’s characters find themselves deciding whether to stay and build or flee to freedom. “We could leave today down the fire escape or sit here getting old,” offers the speaker in "Bring the Flood", as one possible answer. “I will be the first one out and never look back.”
On this effort, the band has expanded from its original power-duo format, consisting of Rabdau on keys and Matthew Graber on drums, to include Eric Donohue on bass and Peter Moore (Count Zero, Blue Man Group, Think Tree) on keys and vocals. The arrangements are both punchy—moored by a four piece rhythm section that includes Graber, Donohue and the left hands of Rabdau and Moore—and frothy, thanks to generous layers of arpeggio, filigree and fairy dust, supplied by Moore (who also produced the record), and shepherded by mixing engineer Josh Hager (Garvy J, Devo, Del Marquis.)
The outcome is an amalgam of art and pop that, much like the 80s solo work of Peter Gabriel or Kate Bush, would sit equally well in the pop charts or any record-store-geek’s pick of the week. With nods to Bjork, Polly Jean Harvey, and Alison Goldfrapp, Rabdau’s voice rides the maelstrom like a Dorothy in the tornado. Or, just as often, like the witch.
Complimenting a diverse catalogue of work--which includes Rabdau’s 2002 solo electro-pop album Benevolent Apollo, and Foolish Ida, a song-cycle based on Maurice Sendak’s classic fable, Outside Over There—Free as Thieves offers a distinct and much needed perspective. Much like the heroine’s epiphone in 67 Mustang, “(I) waited to run, waited to love, waited to change and never did,” Rabdau and company invite us to face down our regrets and take them on.