Often the artists that are most enduring and universally revered – think: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty – are so not just because of their music...but because of their unique ability to tell a story. And time and again, those stories about their lives reveal something to us about our own.
Prolific singer-songwriter Michael Sackler-Berner, aka MSB, has spent the last eight years aspiring to nothing less than such a hallowed purpose, mostly succeeding and sometimes stumbling along the way. But it’s all led him to what is sure to be remembered as a career-defining moment.
For his intriguingly conceptual new album Short Stories, he has combed through
those songwriting moments that have most shaped him throughout that time, for a resulting collection that incisively captures the evolution of his singular musical talents.
Having grown up on everything from B.B. King to Sinatra to ‘90s hip-hop, he recalls, “My inability to learn other people’s songs, combined with my poetry-filled adolescent diary, led me into songwriting.”
A kid from New York City who would go on to cut his teeth in the same Montreal scene that spawned Arcade Fire (though he now calls Brooklyn home), he was introduced to the public musically via his well-received 2010 debut album MSB. It was notable not just for its proficient and eclectic songwriting – but also for soundtracking hit television shows the likes of Law & Order, Dateline and, most prominently, FX’s Sons of Anarchy.
By the time of the release of his 2011 EP Shimmer and Shine, a telling pattern had begun to develop. The record was produced by David Kahne, who had worked with Paul McCartney and Regina Spektor. It was the first of several high-profile collaborations, including Marshall Crenshaw, Jeff Goldblum, legendary Dylan drummer Jim Keltner...the list goes on.
One such collaboration saw him forming the The Slim Kings in 2012 with bassist Andy Attanasio and venerable Billy Joel drummer Liberty Devitto. Despite being a new band, they would rack up serious road time with the likes of ZZ Top, Los Lonely Boys and The Spin Doctors, only further confirming his ability to draw marquee musicians into his world.
Seven years and an equal number of releases later, MSB’s songs would continue to connect with a mainstream audience via popular television dramas – Nurse Jackie, Chicago Fire, Army Wives and Netflix’s Bloodline, to be specific. But Short Stories is destined to become the album that most viscerally and definitively defines his talent as an artist and songwriter going forward.
“These are cherry picked songs from the last six years,” he says. “I’ve put out a lot of MSB EPs and Slim Kings records; but these were the most important songs to me, and I was saving them up for a special record.”
Special, indeed. From the very first moments of “A Thousand Times,” his poignantly piercing, Leonard Cohenesque lament on doomed romance (“If you don’t leave / You can’t come back for more”) set to a stirring suite of strings, one begins to grasp his considerable ability to convey genuine, affective emotional gravity.
But then “Death to Uptight” and “Trouble is Fun” both tap into a sly, Anglo sort of cool, recalling the iconoclasm of British pop greats from The Kinks to Blur – with all the cleverness and attention grabbing hooks to match.
Another standout, “City Living” is hip scat jazz, possibly as if imagined by Elvis Costello - with its colorful, urban lyrical evocations of, “Everybody loves the sunshine / But asphalt makes me complete.” You could easily imagine that he might have penned it for Ol’ Blue Eyes, and can even hear him crooning it in your head if you
try. But if that weren’t enough genre-hopping, the exhilarating “Top of the Hill” finds him howling ferally over revved up, fuzzed-out psych-punk, complete with retro Farfisa organ.
It says much, of course, about his capacity as a musical force to be watched, and surely soon to be reckoned with in 2019 – following the release of this thoroughly transcendent record.
“It’s an album of fully realized Short Stories,” he reiterates by way of the title. “The goal was to let each song lean all the way into whatever style suited it best production wise. But to me...it just sounds like me.”