Gold Star Strikes the Hazy Charm of Nostalgia on ‘Big Blue’
by Brody Coronelli
Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Gold Star, the moniker of Marlon Rabenreither, has been on the verge of excellence ever since his 2015 full-length debut Dark Days. A rewarding gem for anyone willing to dig deep enough, the record showcases a songwriter with vivid nostalgia at the forefront of what he does, and he expresses this in a way that feels distinctive, and laced with potential. However, Dark Days was missing the spark that bridges appreciation for the past with a sense of personal urgency. On his sophomore album Big Blue, Rabonreither gets to the bottom of this with brilliant ease.
Big Blue Sounds like a dusty, lost album from the ‘70s that you find in an old box in the attic that luminously takes you back to a time you may have never lived or experienced. There’s a sense of mythos attached to this record that at times is a lucid, idealistic tribute to the streets of Los Angeles, and at others a romantic chronicle of memories and recollection. The album remains emotionally colorful and ranged from side A to B, offering a portrait of a songwriter while also building a bridge to your own stories and experiences. Gold Star is adept at radiating a vivid, effortless sense of nostalgia, and his presence as a performer and songwriter far exceeds his own experiences and instead transcends a spark on the verge of the great unknown; a world beyond the horizon; a place far past the cosmos as we know them. The saccharine rock ‘n’ roll, folk, country-drenched symphonies of sharp harmonica pulls, Hammond organs, tastefully low-down guitar leads and slide riffs, and intricate acoustic chord progressions are soaked in an air of distance, as if they’re trying to break through the dense, hazy presence of time.
The album opens with “Come With Me”, a tantalizing invitation to experience the streets of Los Angeles as Rabenreither sees them: picturesque and romantic. “Under silver streetlights and city/From 14thstreet down to the old city hall.” The song carries the groove of a ‘70s Dylan song, emulating the rhythm of walking down a city street late at night with nowhere to go, but everything on your mind. The song “San Francisco Good Times” rides a similar groove, this time focusing on the human urge to run away and see what the world has to offer somewhere new. “You gotta pick it up and get to California/With the sun in your eyes, like a thousand before her,” he sings over a pedal-steel rich instrumental that digs out the hidden transcendence of country music. However, he considers this desire to run away from the other side as well. The song “It Ain’t Easy”, an immersive tribute to restlessness, serves as a warning that sometimes it’s better to stay in one place, at least for awhile. “It ain’t easy when you’re always on the run”, Rabonreither croons on the hook, telling the story of an artist friend of his who recently passed away.
Many of the songs on Big Blue feel conceptual in this sense. They seem to embody a specific moment or feeling, with poetic and aesthetic urgency that’s hard to ignore. The luminous, country-soaked lead single “Sonny’s Blues” a partial ode to James Baldwin’s short story of the same name, has the emotional presence of a life-changing realization that completely changes where you’re headed—wherever that may be. “I felt sunlight shine right between my eyes/I’ve seen lightning strikes my whole life/I felt the stars outside shining in my veins/I met the big blue light face to face”. This vivid description of what sounds like an emotional breakthrough not only puts you in Rabenreither’s shoes and implores you to see the world from his own eyes, but it also calls attention to your own experiences and moments of clarity.
As a songwriter, Gold Star is a master of metaphor and poetic urgency while also maintaining thematic clarity. This is a hard balance to strike; many songwriters either fall on the end of forthright honesty or poetic obscurity, without finding the middle ground between the two. The stripped-down, acoustic song “Blue Sky To Blue Sky” demonstrates this balance with ease. Gold Star manages to blend specific details like: “In Coney Island/In Mercedes/I gave him the money that you gave to me/So we could get tied up, and then we could get free” with the hook “From blue sky to blue sky and back down to me,” a poetic profession that could go many ways, but sentimentally connects to the verses with earnest clarity. Rabenreither writes lyrics that are forthright and unique, with sentimental precision that comes from a place of personality rather than desire to emulate anyone else. However, the arrangements on Big Blue definitely echo Bob Dylan in more ways than one. The song “St. Vincent De Paul’s” could easily be a b-side from Blood On The Tracks, all the way to the charming obscurity of the hook. “Won’t you send that switchblade back to me,” he sings, with thematic resolve.
Rabenreither saves the best for last with “The Strangler”. This is the kind of song that every singer/songwriter wishes they could write, reaching an angle of transcendence and poetic clarity that elevates Big Blue from great to excellent in just three short minutes. Built around precise, colorful harmonica interjections, a modest chord progression, and a subtle organ lead, all the gall to this track comes from the lyrics. It’s not the first time/I tried to leave/It wasn’t ‘till last night that it finally happened to me,” he sings with a sense of relief silently swayed by inner turmoil. The specifics of what inspired the song are intentionally vague, but the magnitude of them is sharp and unwavering.
There isn’t a single song on Big Blue that feels half-hearted or tossed in with abandon. These are songs with urgency that only intense recollection and vivid experience can muster, and the result is something that’s tremendously special. Gold Star is a name to know, and Big Blue echoes all the proponents necessary for a career breakthrough, so here’s to hoping it does just that.
Listen to: “Sonny’s Blues”, “Blue Sky to Blue Sky”, “The Strangler”, “Deptford High St.”