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I'd Trade Anything to Feel As Good As I Used To
Jason Falkner: Author Unknown
Not that I necessarily want to be known for predicting commercial success, but if I did I should adopt the policy of not, as I did in 1994, awarding "Best New Artist" to a band that had already split up by the time I selected them. The band was the Grays, who strained the definition of "new" already, since their members all appear to have had long previous histories. The two I followed in were Jon Brion, who I knew from his production, playing and co-writing work with Aimee Mann and Murray Attaway, and Jason Falkner, who was in the Three O'Clock for their bizarre 1988 Paisley Park farewell album, Vermillion. Along the way, I later discovered, Falkner was in Jellyfish circa their 1990 debut, Bellybutton, and after his departure Brion helped out with guitars on Jellyfish's second album, 1993's Spilt Milk.
Two years on from the death of the Grays, Jason Falkner wins the lamentably languid solo-album race with Author Unknown, a one-man show that bears a strong familial resemblance to both the Grays and Jellyfish. The Grays I loved for their fuzzy version of intricate pop, which seemed to me to alternate between jangly gleam and apocalyptic roar, often within the space of the same song. Jellyfish I resisted, though, because for every understated gem like "The King Is Half Undressed" there seemed to be a histrionic monstrosity like "Joining a Fan Club" that reminded me way too much of Queen. Author Unknown turns out to be the bridge between the two for me. Falkner sifts most of the storminess out of the Grays, leaving more sweepingly telegraphed hooks amidst less atmospheric swirl, but thanks to both his insistence on playing all the instruments himself and his non-Mercurial singing voice, his solo music bears closer resemblances to Radiohead and the Boo Radleys than to "Bohemian Rhapsody", and is less psychedelic than the Three O'Clock, but sturdier than Aimee Mann and buzzier than Attaway. The transition from Aimee to the Grays to Jason to Jellyfish, actually, is in a way a stylistic progression from intimacy to a retreat behind artifice. And while Aimee's apparent frailty conceals acidic venom, and Jellyfish's extravagant melodramas are actually populated by broken souls collapsed within sight of their rewards, in the middle, where the music seems self-justifying and self-sufficient, Jason is content to just be happy and play. Having this midpoint gave me a better context for appreciating Jellyfish at the other end, and I've now embraced even "Joining a Fan Club".
Author Unknown opens with the surging bass groove and brash guitar of the whooshing "I Live". The long, cascading chorus vocal, which seems to me to resolve perfectly at the end of each line, has the grace of a dancer decelerating as she reaches the footlights. "Miracle Medicine" switches roles around, and while the vocal part circles through a holding pattern, the guitar careens in all directions like the Tasmanian Devil playing that big floor keyboard from Big. "Hectified" finds Jason first settling into an equilibrium, with a cheerfully ragged guitar hum and close, bouncy drums setting down a groove over which his clean singing, lead and piano have Buddy Holly-esque clarity and restraint. "Don't Show Me Heaven" then slows, delivering its guitar flourishes with measured gestures, and weaving rumbling percussion, a tinny drum loop and breathy backing vocals around its stately melody.
Despite the mournful cello with which it opens, "She Goes to Bed" builds to a crescendo of soaring guitar and violins singing their defiant calm in contemplative Morse code. The wistful "...Nobody Knows" is all flanging and distracted analog-synth whistles, but "Follow Me" sounds to me like a square Brian Wilson-esque remake of some lost early Game Theory song that Scott Miller never got around to writing words for. "Before My Heart Attacks", the intermission theme, finds Falkner singing plaintively over a spare acoustic guitar accompaniment and a swelling orchestra that seems determined to render his every nuance as caricature.
The final third eases back into gear with the Beatles-y (Harrison-y I might even specify, if I knew my Beatles better) "Afraid Himself to Be", acoustic guitar morphing into electric and Jason's melody traversing the staves like it thinks it's playing Frogger. "Miss Understanding" is the album's party-rock anthem, charged guitar and buoyant handclaps infecting it with a beatific smile that we might find shining still on revisionist "Remember How Ebullient the Nineties Were?" compilations well into the next century. If "Miss Understanding" is Jason's "Take On Me", though, then "I Go Astray" is his "Come On Eileen", jerky, goofy and seeming to borrow its idiom from somebody who may not have been quite ready to relinquish it. And the album concludes somewhat obliquely, with the introspective "Untitled", which is a bit like what "Walk on the Wild Side" might be if it had simmering strings, supportive drums, warm singing and, suddenly, halfway through, an abrupt style shift into a straight-faced sentimental soft-rock fade out that ends in an orchestral reprise.
The Connells: Weird Food & Devastation
Back at the end of pop where things aren't generally as complicated, the Connells have been refining their unfalteringly engaging semi-Celtic Carolinian version of melodic purity for several albums, now. One Simple Word, their fourth, remains my vote for the clearest evocation of their spirit, but that album is six years old, and while I appreciated that 1993's Ring tried to keep the band from lapsing into retreading earlier steps, in the end its vocal delicacy and pervasive quiet didn't hold my attention with the same magic that One Simple Word and its predecessor, Fun & Games, had. And neither the supplementary New Boy EP (with a couple b-sides, two live recordings, and a Jethro Tull cover!) nor George Huntley's recent solo album filled the ensuing three years adequately.
Happily, though, to me Weird Food & Devastation finds the Connells wholly reinvigorated, so perhaps the rest has done them good. As if they realize that they've already made their definitive album, for this one they seem to relax, turn up the amps a notch or two, and set out to prove that strict harmonic discipline needn't keep them from playing something resembling rock and roll. It's still the Connells, mind you, so the melancholy seeps through in places despite their best efforts, and even at their most flat-out their songs are hardly scored for air guitar, but Huntley and Mike Connell do seem less self-conscious about stomping on their fuzzboxes and firing blasts of overdrive over everybody's heads as cover. "Maybe"'s revving guitars and detonating snares march like an approaching army. "Start" is slower but just as thick, and the break-up song "Fifth Fret" is quick and methodical. After an airy intro, "Any" (the unassisted songwriting debut for drummer Peele Wimberley) kicks in with a solid thwack, and the almost Big Country-ish "Hang On" rides on a swooping guitar hook and wispy falsetto choruses. "Pretty Rough" resonates, "Let It Go" nearly boogies, and "Too High" sounds a bit like Buffalo Tom with keyboards bleeding in from a Michael Penn session next door.
The traditional first (and sometimes only) question Connells fans tend to ask about a new album, though, is not what it's like, but just how many of its songs Mike Connell didn't write. This one will sound like an unmitigated disaster by that reckoning, as only six of these fourteen songs are Mike's (as opposed to ten of eleven on Boylan Heights, eight of twelve on Fun & Games, ten of thirteen on One Simple Word, and nine of thirteen even on the notably diluted Ring). Huntley, though, who is usually the reason some people prefer more of Mike's songs, only provides a song and a half. The rest (other than Wimberley's one song) are all by singer Doug MacMillan, one shared with Huntley and one with keyboardist Steve Potak. And understandably, these tend to be the ones that aren't as loud and uncluttered. MacMillan's unsteady "Just Like That" is country-ish and frail, Jimmy Descant's gravelly vocal interjections notwithstanding. "Back to Blue" is sad, in a shuffling, acoustic way. And Huntley and MacMillan's collaboration, "On Your Honor", actually has more of Huntley's distinctive sing-song cadence than his own raucous "Let It Go". Doug's "Too High", though, is tense and distant, all cracking guitar and sawing strings, with only some scrap-metal percussion where the drums would have been, and Potak and MacMillan's "Smoke" is smooth, expansive and exquisite. And Connell's cycling "Adjective Song", actually, may be the album's least characteristic moment. And so though Mike looks marginalized on paper, in practice I find that I appreciate this album better as a whole than perhaps any Connells album since Boylan Heights. In fact, I think the key thing that keeps the other people's songs from feeling like they're disrupting the flow of what would have been the album without them is that this is really the first time that the balance of contributions didn't suggest that divisive interpretation of its own accord. Whatever your personal feelings are about Huntley's songs, when there are nearly enough of Mike's songs to make an album, the other ones are sure to seem out of place. But when the album is unmistakably the whole band's, the whole can't help but better suit the parts.
Robert Pollard: Not In My Air Force
The songwriting balance in Guided by Voices is a lot like the Connells' used to be, with Robert Pollard responsible for the vast majority (and in GbV's case the term "vast" is not used casually) of the band's fragmentary songs. Given this, and the fact that GbV doesn't tend to draw sharp distinctions between demos and finished songs anyway, this Robert Pollard solo LP is essentially a new Guided by Voices album in all but name.
If my reaction is to be trusted, though, it's not really a very good one. Structurally, it looks perfectly plausible. GbV had, of late, taken some pains to try to see that songs finished, rather than just ending, and Not In My Air Force lapses a bit on this count, with only six of its twenty-two songs passing the two-minute mark (one hitting three and the longest just past four), but I loved the fractious collage of Bee Thousand intensely, so that shouldn't be the problem. The titles and lyrics are incomprehensible, but that's not new, either. Somehow, though, this album slips by without my ever getting a grip on it. Other GbV albums are evasive, but usually in along with the pigheadedness are songs like "The Official Ironmen Rally Song", "Lord of Overstock", "Don't Stop Now", "It's Like Soul Man" (from Under the Bushes, Under the Stars), "Game of Pricks", "Closer You Are", "Motor Away", "My Valuable Hunting Knife", "Blimps Go 90" (from Alien Lanes), "Tractor Rape Chain", "The Goldheart Mountaintop Queen Directory", "Queen of Cans and Jars", "Kicker of Elves" and "I Am a Scientist" (from Bee Thousand) that I walk around humming for weeks after hearing them. I keep playing this, expecting its share of those songs to make itself known, but it's not happening. "Release the Sunbird" is okay, and "Flat Beauty", but the payoff for song-fragments on Bee Thousand was that the missing parts were the boring ones, so the album caromed from hook to hook as if Pollard's attention span was too short for him to deal with anything but the good parts. Here, though, these sound to me like exactly the parts that got left out of all the other albums, and nothing ever really seems to get going. Forty minutes go by, the album ends, and I'm still waiting for the compositional throat-clearing to be over with.
Of course, there's another statistically possible explanation for my feelings, which is that I may have filled up my quota of Robert Pollard songs. Maybe these are just as good as the ones I love, and I'm simply out of slots. I reject this theory instinctively, but I guess if it's happened I wouldn't necessarily be able to tell. We might never know; if nothing Pollard does ever excites me again, we'll have no way of telling if the problem is mine or his. But if I ever like a new GbV album again, I'll know this one is junk.
Tobin Sprout: Carnival Boy
A solo album from GbV's other occasional songwriter, Tobin Sprout, was a less routine proposition. I never thought Sprout's songs stood out the way George Huntley's Connells songs did, but on inspection I do note that of my quick GbV favorites list, only one song ("It's Like Soul Man", reprised, appropriately enough, here) is Sprout's. And at barely more than a half an hour, this disc doesn't make a canon yet, either. On its own scale, though, I think it's substantially more successful than Not In My Air Force. Sprout shows much less willingness than Pollard to call something a song just because it has a title, so more of these fourteen tracks feel like real pieces to me. I find myself singing "The end of Heaven comes today", from "The Natural Alarm", and humming the guitar riffs of "To My Beloved Martha" and the chorus of "I Didn't Know". "It's Like Soul Man" is a classic, and "The Last Man Well Known to Kingpin" is almost as good. These are all good signs.
The tradeoff, though, is that where Pollard to me is a demented genius capable of misfiring for a whole album solid, Sprout strikes me as more conscientious than inspired. I like a few of these songs, and the rest, though I'm glad he took the time to finish them, don't do much for me. On GbV records his songs were only asked to fill in stray chinks between Pollard's, and here it seems to me like Tobin has only partially adjusted to the idea that constructing a whole wall is going to require more than just mortar. Given time, though, I suspect he'll find his own source for bricks.
Sebadoh: Harmacy
And concluding this week's survey of songwriting divisiveness in pop bands is the latest album by another low-fi mainstay, Sebadoh. Sebadoh is basically the world's smallest art collective, a banner under which singer/guitarists Lou Barlow and Jason Loewenstein release simultaneous solo half-albums on which the other one plays bass and Bob Fay drums. Their styles have bled into each other a little from exposure, but they're still pretty easily distinguished. Barlow's singing voice is fragile and soft, and his songs, though they can be noisy at times, are invariably elegantly melodic, his quiet songs practically lullabies, something like what a cross between Matthew Sweet and Evan Dando might sound like, only more alert. Jason's instincts are closer to old-school punk, and though he too has quiet songs, his are generally Sebadoh's explosions of destructive, howling intensity, the songs where they sound more like the Zulus than Luna.
Jason and Lou's songwriting styles do make a slightly odd package. I can easily imagine people liking Lou's mellower songcraft but being put off by Jason's vitriol and clamor, and conversely, I'd imagine that some of the fans of Jason's defiant punk songs would just as soon do without the boring ballads in between. For myself, I like Jason's stuff well enough to listen to the album straight through, but I definitely am a Sebadoh fan for Lou's. "Ocean" is harrowingly earnest, "On Fire" strangely off-center, "Beauty of the Ride" crashing and urgent, "Willing to Wait" hushed and haunting, "Too Pure" uncertain, "Open Ended" warm and hopeful and "Weed Against Speed" thoughtful. If Nick Drake had lived in Boston in the Nineties, and had a punk trio to play with, his songs might have come out something like this.
There's also one instrumental here by Fay, and for the final track they all take a break from writing and slam through a well-thrashed cover of "I Smell a Rat", by the Bags, one of my favorite defunct and badly underappreciated Boston bands. Though the idea of Nick Drake covering the Bags makes my head hurt.
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