Fading at the Frontiers
431 · 1 May 03
Jon Brion is a musical genius. This is a well-established fact, confirmation of which you can easily find by surveying the list of his guest and production credits, or by listening to some of the albums he's worked on and observing the common elements, or by finding a now-elusive copy of Ro Sham Bo, the only thing released by the Grays, the band he was briefly in with Jason Falkner and Buddy Judge and Dan McCarroll. Any lingering personal skepticism I had on the issue of Brion's genius was dispelled by about ten minutes of one of his tour de force Friday-night improv stands at Largo, on a warm spring evening in LA a couple years ago. One of his show-off gimmicks involves asking the audience to yell out random demands (styles, songs, artists, contortions...), which he then immediately synthesizes in some way, and this time some woman in front self-consciously squeaked "drum & bass", and a spindly guy in back with an inexplicably deep voice boomed out a commanding "Joe Jackson!" Brion nodded as if they were twins. "Drum & bass Joe Jackson", he repeated for the record, and then he and whichever celebrity drummer happened to have shown up to play with him that night (my memory claims it was Jim Keltner) ripped unhesitatingly into an effusively spasmodic rendition of "Is She Really Going Out With Him?"
Brion's solo album was a tantalizing rumor for a very long time. And as a myth, it was stunning. It combined the baroque flair of Jellyfish with the disciplined melancholy of Aimee Mann, the grounded hum of Grant Lee Buffalo with the florid ethereality of Rufus Wainwright, the fragility of Elliott Smith with the snarl of Fiona Apple. It was complex and pure, dense and spare, gloriously overblown and relentlessly focused. It was a power-pop masterwork to set a stern challenge before the whole new century, and an expansive exhortation to every soul he'd ever worked with to rise to a new standard.
And then the album actually came out. Or sort of came out, anyway. It was called Meaningless, and it was on Brion's own label, and it lists a 2000 copyright and I finally got mine mail-order a couple weeks into 2001. I know, from checking around, that there exist people who believe the real album lives up to all its most sweeping potential expectations. I am not one of them. I know, from personal experience, that there exist people who believe Meaningless is terminally dull. For me it combined the most tediously restrained musical lulls of an Aimee Mann off-album with a vocal performance that sounds like guide tracks for a guide track, and then just died where it fell. It should have been monumental, and to me it ended up being little more than an object-lesson footnote about anticipation and irony. Just because you're a musical genius and an unrivaled medium doesn't mean that when you go to sing from your own heart, much good noise will come out. Either Brion deliberately stifled his manifest gift for grand melody out of perversity or personal aversion, or else his creativity was suffocated by his versatility.
Bleu has nothing to do with Jon Brion. In the pop world, mind you, "nothing to do with Jon Brion" means that you have made at least one album on which Brion himself makes virtually no personal appearance, or that you can identify at least one degree of separation between the two of you in which the person that links you had more to do with your record than Jon did. In Bleu's case, Brion played with Jellyfish and Jellyfish's Andy Sturmer co-wrote and sang on one song on Redhead and helped mix a few more. But Brion is present even in absence, at this point, and I don't know how this album would have sounded any different with him playing half of it.
Redhead is Bleu's major-label debut, but it reprises a few key moments from his earlier indie album Headroom, and for me ends up, like the Cavedogs' delirious Joyrides for Shut-Ins many years earlier in Boston rock history, sounding like a greatest hits album from a long career I somehow missed. Producer John Fields (who also played on Puffy's album Nice., which Sturmer produced and Bleu appeared on) hasn't Brion's vintage keyboard collection, but knows how to make big, bouncy guitar-pop swirl and ring, and maybe Brion has become less a musician than a curator. As a songwriter Bleu comes across like a Ben Folds without self-esteem issues. And exactly like the album I wanted Meaningless to be, Redhead amounts for me to a scattered catalog of the pop flaws of a dozen other random bands that now strike me as plainly inadequate.
"I Won't Go Hollywood" swoops and sparkles like it's going to lead the children straight down Sunset to the desert, and now every Foo Fighters song sounds as leaden as the Donnas to me. "Somebody Else" flies falsetto like castle streamers, and makes me suspect that Sunny Day Real Estate's great emo/prog transformation wasn't half as difficult as they intimated. "You'll Do It All Again" sounds like the ghosts of Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley trying to upstage Michael Penn and E. "Searchin' for the Satellites" is as swoony as Jellyfish at their dreamiest. The jolting "Could Be Worse", with Sturmer, sounds like Randy Newman beating the crap out of Steely Dan with a thirty-pound lollipop. The pensive/creepy "Watchin' You Sleep" crosses Radiohead with the Posies, and why didn't they think of that? "Somethin's Gotta Give" dips towards Verbow and then flutters towards ELO. "You Know, I Know, You Know" could have saved P. T. Anderson the Supertramp royalties for the Magnolia soundtrack. "Feet Don't Fail" groans and throbs as darkly as the loudest Posies songs. "Trust Me" sounds like Semisonic discovering Squeeze. "3's a Charm" conflates eels and Radiohead and somehow ends up hopeful.
And my votes for the two most uplifting moments here go straight into my roll-call of all-time power-pop classics. "Ursula Major, Ursula Minor" is almost totally meaningless, and I don't even think about starting to consider minding, because I'm too busy singing the title over and over again, like it's the Posies' "Grant Hart" cleansed of vitriol. But even that pales against the storming "Sayonara", which rides Bleu's jubilantly unmeant kiss-off, with Puffy's Ami and Yumi singing the glittery harmony lines, into the sunset of exquisitely redemptive empathy, guitars pealing and cymbals crashing like the Gin Blossoms never touched a drink and the Goo Goo Dolls never heard of VH1. "The crack of dawn creeps across and finds you on the lawn." Brion is still hiding down in his basement, sanding the hooks off of songs he smuggled out of session gigs. Bleu is standing on the front steps in bare feet and jeans he probably slept in, one mutton-chop still pillow-flattened, about to bring you a glass of orange juice and see if you slept OK, never sad or angry for longer than it takes for the heart to jump.
Dan Bern: Fleeting Days
But maybe you prefer your earnest sentimentality cloaked in glib novelty. Ben Folds doesn't always bother, and it's not looking like Too Much Joy are going to make more records, but there's still Dan Bern, wheezing along like a Bob Dylan who sat out the protest era doing crossword puzzles and watching old movies on late-night TV. This time around, Bern gives us: a breakup encapsulated in left-behind CDs; an irresistible relationship as original sin; personal super-powers that can't save the rest of the world; love hiding behind Miles Davis and the Shangri-Las and Shaquille O'Neal and God; love hiding behind border towns and beach towns and Hemingway and food; love hiding behind sing-along-folk pastiche; love hiding behind books; record-label executives who can go fuck themselves; outgrowing cities; overwhelming modernity; Elvis, Paul Simon, Marc Cohn and the digestive after-effects of bad grits; your own soul.
This is, for him, a dramatically limited reference repertoire, so low in dropped names that I rather suspect the love songs of autobiography. In fact, of the thirteen songs here only "Graceland" strikes me as lyric-driven in the way that on previous albums at least two-thirds of the songs would have been. For the first time, maybe, Bern feels comfortable enough as a musician to let the songs at least halfway take care of themselves. Or maybe in love enough not to care. It helps that he has a consistent band for a whole album, for once, but maybe it's just that he's been doing this long enough to start taking it seriously. And so Fleeting Days, where it could easily have just been the new jokes, sounds to me like a folk-rock record. Whether that will make it any more accessible, I confess I don't know. Bern sings like he's making fun of Dylan even when he isn't, and the band plays muted sparkle at times, roadhouse bluster at others, weepy pedal-steel country-rock at moments, barrel-roll thump and Elvis Costello lilt and slithery guitar churn and piano twinkle. The Paul Simon and Marc Cohn references in "Graceland" are sung as allusion and parody (respectively). None of this will get Bern on MTV or lead anybody to confuse him with Pete Yorn. But it sounds like he thinks somebody might actually want to listen to the record this time, instead of just reading the booklet, and I am repaying his confidence by playing it with a window open.
Chris Whitley: Hotel Vast Horizon
Bern is on Messenger Records, these days. Messenger's other cornerstone is Chris Whitley, who put out the solo acoustic albums Dirt Floor and Live at Martyrs' on the label before releasing the covers album Perfect Day on Valley, the studio-munged Rocket House on Dave Matthews' ATO, and the retrospective Long Way Around back on Columbia. Hotel Vast Horizon, his Messenger return, is an album of new material recorded over the course of a single unceremonious week last December in Dresden, Germany, with Whitley playing acoustic guitar and banjo and singing, Heiko Schramm handling acoustic (and sparing electric) bass, and Matthias Macht drumming.
What I should have expected from a Chris Whitley unplugged-trio German-winter album, I don't know. I've liked Whitley best by himself, his songs stripped of every excess decoration. But these trio arrangements, to my surprise, sound somehow even sparer despite the other two players. By himself, I think, Whitley plays to assert himself over spaces, and his earlier band albums tried to actually fill spaces with noise. This time, all three musicians play only as necessary, and the joint production, by the three and recorder Edgar Röthig, makes a point of letting in room noise and string buzz and other incidentals, and thus gives the players an environment for restraint. Whitley plays guitar chords that overdrive would have sustained in electric form, but here just lets them fade into implication. Schramm's basses sigh and murmur, Macht's drums rustle and splash.
And what emerges is strange and unexpectedly mesmerizing, a quiet acoustic record that is nonetheless discernibly rock in inclination, not folk, and has been alternating with Rainer Maria's Long Knives Drawn as my standard-bearer for the year so far. There is old Richard Thompson grace here, layers of Talk Talk and Luka Bloom's different intimacies, Richard Buckner's tension. Of the two songs that stand out, to me, one (the over-stylized "Blues for André") I would have left out, but the other (the tense, hissing "Insurrection at Newtown") is the album's arresting half-finale before a muted instrumental coda. The other seven songs dovetail together deftly, almost more like minor variations on a central theme than independent compositions, or as if this record is a document of a short set devised as a whole, and I'm thus drawn along across the song boundaries smoothly, in rather stark contrast to Redhead, where every song snaps emphatically to its borders.
Redhead, of course, is clearly a summer album. And it's tempting to call Hotel Vast Horizon a winter album, given that it was recorded then, inside buildings shrouded with snows, surrounded by cold-emptied plazas. It would be easy enough to declare these intrinsically opposite, and then pair them across each divide. But for me, that's emotionally inaccurate. Winter music is compressed and reactive, storm-bound or obsessive or sharp. Summer's precept is freedom. It's almost warm enough to sleep with the window open, or outside. All three of these albums are records about freedom, and guardlessness, and thus celebration and curiosity. If Redhead can stand for allowing yourself joy, then Fleeting Days (another winter reference for summer comparison) might be about accepting your joy in its simplicity, and Hotel Vast Horizon might be about the moments in between the spikes of ecstasy or terror, when it seems like quiet serenity could just be the simplest way to live.