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By Michael E. Miller
We're 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, going down fast, about to crash, and Keith Michaud of Summer Blanket has just gotten me slammed in the balls by an attractive young blond of surprisingly muscular build.
That's how he suggests this article start, punning off a scene from Almost Famous, with the addition of some half-true details that occur to him while we talk into the night. (Looking across the back patio of a Clematis Street hangout in West Palm Beach, he comments on the dirigible-esque properties of the blond woman's rear: "Tomorrow, I'm gonna write a song about that.")
With the release this week of his second album, Whisper Louder,Michaud stands at that almost-famous moment where fiction and truth, his work and his life, get a little confusing. Gazing up at the trees and the light coming through them, Michaud shakes his head. "I'm getting paranoid," he says. "That looks just like my album cover."
"The problem is," he continues, "you take an experience, you don't really get it at the time and you put it into a song, and then it's compacted. It is good therapy but also self-destructive, because then you are compacted into a three-minute song. Just like now, I'm being compacted into this article."
And I ache to find the right sounds
to capture what she's all about
but they're just not coming to me
and it's easy to see
I'm leaving clarity
to people who could use it more than me
--"Leaving Clarity," from Whisper Louder
In recent years, the Connecticut native has worked hard to become the Everyman of the South Florida music scene. It's less Michaud's aw-shucks normal guyism than his appearance at almost every show, bar gig, studio, house party, and guerrilla street performance in Palm Beach County that has won him the title. "I make no division between my friends' music down here and Franz Ferdinand," he says.
Besides some of those friends who played on the album, Michaud alone is Summer Blanket. At its core, his music retains the acoustic psychosis of Skip Spence or Syd Barrett and the emo-hope pop sheen of Death Cab for Cutie that was the sound of Summer Blanket's debut, Charm Wrestling. But with Whisper Louder,Michaud has opened up his sonic palette. "The first album was folk-pop, and I didn't want to do that again," he explains. "I recorded [Whisper Louder] and then just went back over it improvising to make it a little weird." The unexpected sprinkling of psychedelic guitar washes and electronic beeps over Michaud's Jiminy Cricket-for-adults melodies is the result. Where Charm Wrestling skirted close to the saccharine, Whisper Louder's wider, impressionistic sound and stronger lyrics give it the off-kilter reflection of a true personality working outside of his influences. Expectedly, it has won him fans.
Michaud typically plays three to five shows a week; tonight he's off, out on the town, enjoying the company of friends and beer at his regular Clematis Street watering hole. Twenty-something Bethany Bizick pulls him aside into a booth to thank him profusely for his music.
"I knew Keith," she confides afterward, "but I didn't even realize it was his album I was given. I just came home, put on my earphones, which is important, because the music is very intense" -- her hands rise, caught by air -- "and this intensity... The lyrics just fit perfectly what I was feeling. He was saying everything in my words but so much better than I could."
Michaud is clearly surprised at the praise, but his face, reminiscent of a softer Russell Crowe, fails to hide his delight. "My ex-wife never listened to a single song," he says later. "She couldn't stand it. She'd just sigh and roll her eyes when I played."
Within three years -- between 1999 and 2002 -- Michaud married, had a kid, moved to Florida from New England, lost his father, and divorced. It was then that he began concentrating on music. He plays his deceased father's guitar, which has carved into it "SEMMEM" -- the combined initials of his daughter, Sydney, and father, Morile. He is estranged from his daughter, who's celebrating her sixth birthday this night with his ex-wife in England.
Whisper Louder is a snapshot of these heart-wrenching experiences. The album's seventh song is called "London." It's an instrumental. Michaud has written words to it but refuses to record them. The eighth track on the album, "Sydney," is named after his daughter. He refuses to perform it live. "I don't know if I'd call it catharsis," Michaud says, "but people who don't accept depression as a part of life are just kidding themselves."
I feel like I'm failing you and that, somehow
the failure is a blessing
it feels like I'm falling apart,
coming together, or both at once?
and I'm tired of all this regret.
-- "Connecticut," fromWhisper Louder
A month ago, Michaud spent a weekend in jail. He had failed to appear in court for a traffic citation and got pulled over. Worried about what might happen in the dark of a prison night while he slept, he forced himself to stay awake. His cellmate, Jesus, a man with frightfully excessive track marks, saw Michaud's open eyes. "Hey, Keith. God loves you man. Smile today. Cry when you're out of here, on the outside."
Being driven to court from jail, Michaud saw through a barred window the back end of a bar where he had played. "I remembered hundreds of people loving my music," he says, "and how none of the other guys with me in that truck had that... how lucky I was."
Here things begin to reek of pop-culture, preacher-in-the-pokey cornballism. I'm tempted to ask the bartender for the check and head home. Is this guy's veracity to be trusted? But Michaud's easy, comfortable manner imbues his tale with a take-it-or-leave-it sincerity. Such cockeyed authenticity permeates his music.
Outside the restaurant on Clematis, one homeless man and then another approach us. Michaud handles them with the respect and grace of a movie star signing autographs. The first, going alternately by the names Mark, Luke, and John, is not familiar with Michaud's music but fires questions at him about his influences. Joe Satriani is mentioned as a peripheral inspiration. Further probing produces only more ancillary musical mentors. Michaud ends the conversation with the sweet innocence of a true believer: "You're influencing me right now."
It is 4:13 a.m., and the streetlights bask Michaud in a yellow glow. Yet another night of libations and finding a ride home (Michaud confesses that "transportation is an issue for me") is coming to an end. He's surrounded by local music impresarios, promoters, club owners, musicians, a dog, and a music journalist. He is flirting with a pale beauty who recalls "the shadow of a white rose in a mirror of silver," to quote from Wilde's Salome.
Is Michaud a John the Baptist, his head to be served up on the block once again for lust and love, or is he at the verge of an Almost Famous breakthrough? Is the plunging plane going to smash into the ocean, or will it rise again à la that fantasy rock film? Check Michaud's amiable smile and the fact that, except for the dog, he is the center of attention for your answer. Life just might be getting better.