“Hey there,” Ben Burwell and company gladly hail the unknown ear, “…How long has your entire been cold and tired? Give me your hand, we’re gonna find you fire.” This warm welcome greets the listener on “Your Thief,” the first track off of Taj Raj’s latest, Night Speech, and continues for a strong seven minutes. It’s the first of many compositions on this release that pass the five minute mark, leaving the ear well sated. So like the dedication of time lent to the creation of this release, required in return is an investment on part of the listener: to take an hour of the day to press play and let be.
Full of lush instrumentals and harmonic vocals, Night Speech is cinematic in a present and grounded way, using instruments more familiar to a rock band than an orchestra. Burwell on vocals and guitar is joined by Chris O’Hal on guitar, Jake Wallenius on drums and percussion, Jake Pavek on piano, rhodes, and organ, and Mark Kartarik on bass, to fill a lineup that was present for every step of the process in making this album. Their combined talents and influences converge in a mature and connected sound, in which all the elements make sense as a whole. At times it hints of rock, at others it breathes country or Americana, and then moments of piano and string ballads or late 70’s classic rock break through for a locally unmistakable, but versatile sound.
The title itself is taken from another time – Night Speech being a phrase discussed by two characters in a world built by Tolkien. In early 2014, during a cold snap of historic proportions, Burwell took it upon himself to deliberately stand outside and experience the frozen air of a lifetime, as well as read a good novel (indoors). He came across a passage in this time which resonated with him: as two characters look out into the darkness, one asks the other if he sees what he perceives, and the latter responds with, “I hear nothing but the night-speech of plant and stone” (The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien). This concept not only claimed the title of Taj Raj’s next release (and could be the artistic title of the album cover singlehandedly), but heavily influenced the lyric writing as well.
From mentions of lamp-light and “cloak the candle” in “The Hollow,” to “darkness still at hand” in “Your Throne,” imagery of night and landscape pervades Night Speech, painting a rich scene of other places or older times in history. “Alder Tree” reads like a long-lost survival manual written in prose, culminating musically in a thrill of strings and echoing vocals, promising freedom. Yet at times, this poetry of words is difficult to decipher between the antique turns of phrasing and the mesh of reverb and instrumentals. The result, however, is a charming one, and the mystery that remains gives Night Speech that nostalgic essence of never quite knowing the words to your favorite song.
Even the band name comes from another time, another place, and another novel. Taj Raj was pulled, as Burwell told me, from the mostly fictional memoir of Gregory David Roberts, which reaches almost one thousand pages. After a long series of adventures, crimes, and mafia entanglements in the Eastern Hemisphere during a previous century, there’s a moment toward the end (past 800 pages) in India where the characters look over at a man nearby and nonchalantly state, “oh there’s Taj Raj.” This man is distinguishable for the funny angle at which his neck hangs, having picked the wrong lock one day and narrowly escaped death by machete swipe, leaving him marked for life. Admittedly, it’s a phrase not commonly Googled, and has a distinctive way about itself.
The story behind the formation of Taj Raj the band is not nearly as harrowing, but instead a familiar one of friendly introductions, shared songs, and rotating members at times. The last member they locked in for the full creation of Night Speech was bassist Kartarik, who is also a photographer, and unintentionally snapped the album art. These members all have different influences, different musical tastes, but they unite in what is now “a part of all of our lives,” Burwell admits up front, and we agree it is the key to the band’s continued success.
I had the pleasure of sitting down with Burwell, Kartarik, and Pavek to discuss Night Speech, and found that the past two years have been a pivotal time for the band. This past year, they acquired a unique practice space in Saint Paul, which they’ve dubbed “The Alamo.” They did not record the new album here (except for strings), but are already putting it to good use with practice, video work, and for creating more new material. The night I arrived, it was raining heavily, and had some difficulty identifying the building. Burwell joked about it, explaining, “It’s weird inviting people over here… [I say] go into the alley… go back down steps behind this warehouse, park way back here… I promise I’m not gonna rob you!” We collectively were caught in surprise when Pavek mentioned the time he ordered Jimmy John’s and they found the place right away.
Following two previous releases, Taj Raj had a different approach for this record: “we’re going to write til the record’s done!” And of course, they all admit that “we had deadlines.” The process came into full swing from a memorable cabin weekend in Brainerd, when they recorded all the demos and truly learned to play these songs all together. There was more consistency over time, practicing every Saturday starting in fall 2013 and continuing into tracking in late winter 2014. And finally, a release in May of 2015. Dustin Keil “was there from day one” Burwell points out, and “dedicated an absurd amount of time” to helping Taj Raj create their best work to date. It was “like a dance with him” – a balance between genuine support and constructive criticism in the recording process and beyond. The multitude of layers on this album speaks to both the outside contributors, such as string artists Leah Ottman and Hilary James (featured on “Alder Tree” and “The Hollow”), as well as the engineering involved, and I would personally like to thank every one of these committed souls for making Night Speech such a quality piece of work.
And an innovative one, too. “Dreams of Flight, Part 1” – the first music video from the release – possibly the shortest track on the record, is a complete departure from their usual fare. Inspired directly from a composition of Pavek’s, “Dreams of Flight, Part 1” shatters genres and steals breath. They took “something old” Pavek elaborated, and added “his [Ben’s] vibration onto it.” Immediately followed by “Saluki Look,” Taj Raj steps up its game once again in the tune that could be called the best of all possible combinations. Burwell lightly dotes on “No your time doesn’t tick my way” as guitar, piano, bass, and percussion play along. A lighter tone in this one may lead to dancing, windows rolled down on car rides, and epic late night revelations.
“Click Your Heels” is another more upbeat addition, reminding me here and there of fellow Twin Cities’ band Rogue Valley, and “Fauns” in moments leads me to Other Lives, both in their modern adaptation of older Western sounds and compositional awareness. But in “Boot Knife” Taj Raj is all their own, rocking out to a darker tone with: “oh tend the violence, oh it’s part of me.”
For Taj Raj, finding out just who they are as a whole was an important part of creating Night Speech. Burwell pointed out that, “it was a far more collaborative effort than anything we’d ever done before.” And addressing the common conundrum of a lead lyricist, he said that he “didn’t feel comfortable anymore having the band back diary entries more or less… [So] how do you not make it a journal entry? How do you make it into more like a concept for a band to tackle instead of one guy? …[You] take an idea… blow it up into a much bigger idea, or put it into a context that isn’t necessarily something I’ve ever experienced… so it isn’t Ben’s life… it’s an idea that we can all do.”
Night Speech, in the same way, it something we can all do. At the same time, a uniquely personal and yet universal experience. It’s full of talent, of long pondered thoughts, of deliberation and spontaneity, and most importantly, 11 tracks that claim the right for a thorough and repeated listen. Speaking through old themes and modern experiences, Taj Raj has made an album for the ages. Emerging from years without a new release, Burwell observes that it’s “[been] a slow burn… [but] the glow has gotten bigger and bigger.” And this Saturday, it’ll light up Minneapolis as they perform Night Speech live at its release show.