Since 1988, Marin County singer-songwriter Bernie Chiaravalle has been touring the world playing guitar with five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald. During those years, Chiaravalle has co-written and recorded with McDonald, co-writing four tracks on his superb 2000 release Blue Obsession, as well as co-producing it. They have written over two dozen songs together. Bernie also has a song on the legendary Judy Collins duets album Strangers Again. The wonderful “Miracle River” was written by Bernie, Amy Holland and John Goodwin and performed as a duet between Judy Collins and Mike McDonald.
Bernie’s musical style encompasses many influences from The Beatles to Stephen Stills to Todd Rundgren and others. But he really has distilled those influences down into his own thing. Many of his songs have a cinematic quality that suggests visuals to go along with the music.
While holding down Mike McDonald’s guitar chair for the past 29 years, which is practically forever in the notoriously mercurial music business, Bernie Chiaravalle has amassed his own fine body of solo work.
The self-penned Make Some Sense of This is his eighth solo record, coming just a year after his well-received One Bright Moment. Here, he flawlessly handles all vocals and instruments.
The opener, “Peace of Mind” has Bernie coaxing gorgeous sounds from his guitar. They are luscious. Here, he sings “Have we all just lost our minds?” and explains, “We stopped listening to each other.” He could be speaking about relationships, but I relate it to our current political climate where friendships have taken a beating and the world suddenly seems much less familiar. That seems to be a common thread throughout all of these songs. The harmonies are mighty sweet here.
“I Choose Love” is a salve for our emotional bruises. A lovely ballad, its declarative message is positive and healing in the wake of so much negativity out there. I do believe love is a choice. Love is powerful. Love is healing. The chorus here has that same effect. It’s one of my favorites.
The title track’s jaunty rhythm is ultra-catchy in the vein of Squeeze or McCartney, and it features a terrific guitar solo. That descending bass line is irresistible, and so is the tune.
“Ever Changing World” begins with slabs of crunchy guitars, and then settles into a well-written melody. It reminds me of how TOTO pulls off that combination of “heavy and melodic” so well. In fact, they should cover this tune. Here, Bernie describes a feeling of unease but offers hope, if we will take better care of our planet and nurture our own legacy.
“See The Light” and “Say What You Will” are two cool mid-tempo numbers that give us excellent harmonies with interesting little chord changes and melodic twists. The latter’s catchy central guitar riff is a highlight and they both have Bernie making some particularly relevant points in the lyrics. By the way, Bernie’s singing throughout the album is always clear, unerring and respectful of the melody.
I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that “Castle to the Sky” directly refers to the current state of our politics. His message here is well taken, and sung over an R&B-flavored track with an ambitious arrangement. It feels very urban to me and is a good example of the aforementioned cinematic quality of Bernie’s music. Here, he rips a great solo near the finish that ends way too soon for me.
“Follow Your Heart” follows next with a tuneful, bouncy melody and beautifully heavy guitar.
“Now or Never” brings another ambitious arrangement and happy surprises, as well as some exquisite high harmony on the bridge. Lyrically, it finds the protagonist frustrated and reflective on the things he sees going on around him. I’m really drawn to this track.
The record ends with “Real World,” which serves as a summation of what Chiaravalle has been singing about here, as he wonders if the real world is still out there. He yearns for a world that is familiar to him: a world in which he can still believe and trust. This tune is simply beautiful. It conjures up an end-of-the-day weariness one may feel after a great emotional battle. The chorus is stunning, and “Real World” is, hands down, my favorite song on the album. It is the perfect album closer. I predict you may hear it in a movie one day over the closing credits. It is a melody that Brian Wilson would be proud to claim, but cannot; it belongs to Bernie Chiaravalle.
I think this is a record that Bernie felt he had to make, if only as a cathartic release. It is expertly crafted, but even more importantly, it is inspired.
“Take your broken heart, make it into art.” – Carrie Fisher
Bernie suggests that love will win in the end. After listening to this music, I believe it too.
David Tillis - writer for Vinyl Times Magazine
photography by Rachel Chiaravalle