Sunday, February 24, 2013

Classicism: Possibilities and Pitfalls

The Free Dictionary defines classicism as "a term that, when applied generally, means clearness, elegance, symmetry, and repose produced by attention to traditional forms." Just as in other art forms, some musicians are classicists, steeping themselves in the music of the past and using it to fuel new adventures. Three new releases exemplify this idea, two of them with great success.

Amor De Dias - The House At Sea When the first album by this collaboration between Alasdair MacLean of The Clientele and Lupe Nunez-Fernandez of Pipas came out in 2011, it had the feel of an extra-curricular one-off. Though it took three years to make, it went by like a breeze, with sun-kissed pop abutting tender songs redolent of British folk and bossa nova. It was an addictive combination ended up on my top ten for 2011. However, there was always a little part of me waiting for the next album from The Clientele. Now that we have The House At Sea, I'm not so sure. If MacLean is anything, he's a classicist, with a deep engagement in 1960's rock from The Beatles and (early) Pink Floyd, to The Zombies to The Monkees. One of the problems with classicism is that it can become a cul de sac, leading to art that turns in and in on itself until there's no room for it to breathe. This is a pitfall that The Clientele flirted but never succumbed to as their albums grew progressively more refined.

It may be that with Amor De Dias, MacLean has found the perfect exit from that particular conundrum. By collaborating with Nunez-Fernandez, he's able to cut ties to the band format and freely employ the settings that best serve the songs, and they are beautiful songs. While all the compositions are credited to Amor De Dias, it seems safe to assume that Voice in the Rose, the title track, and especially Jean's Waving, are essentially MacLean songs - in fact, they feature The Clientele's rhythm section and wouldn't sound out of place on one of their albums. But there is a lightness that was not always easy to access on some of those Clientele records, delightful as they are. Also, Nunez-Fernandez contributions are stronger this time, setting off MacLean's work perfectly.

The House At Sea is an exquisite album, it's rich sound and detailed arrangements belying the nine-day recording cycle and small number of players. As with all of MacLean's work, the influence of slightly lysergic surrealism introduces a welcome element of darkness. There are definitely shadows in the sunlight. The final track, Maureen, is one such piece, a haunting Morricone-esque beauty that may hint at another direction for MacLean, another way out should he find himself in one more cul de sac: soundtrack work. Wherever he goes, and with whom, I'll be sure to follow.

P.S. I'll be following Amor De Dias to Hoboken when they play at Maxwell's on March 21st. They'll also be at The Knitting Factory on March 22nd, before hitting Philly and then the west coast.

Jenny O. - Automechanic I first encountered the former Ms. Ognibene when she opened for Jonathan Wilson last May. She performed solo and I was immediately struck by the craft behind her intriguing yet sturdy songs, a few of which were instantly memorable. Her voice was high, a little pinched, and could seem slight, except when she startled me with remarkable breath control, perfect phrasing or unexpected range. That night, when she mentioned she was working on an album with Wilson, my hopes were high.
Now Automechanic is here and it has met, and sometimes exceeded, those expectations. 

The songs are as well made as I remembered, with propulsive verses, catchy choruses and lyrics that can be tough and gimlet-eyed or sunny and positive. You get the sense of a young woman proud of her self sufficiency ("Made all my own tools/Yeah I can machine," she sings on the title track), but longing for connection ("Good company is hard to find," she allows on the jokey, Ringo-esque Hey Neighbor), while being knocked off balance by the demands of relationships ("I flipped my lid off/went to far," she confesses on Opposite Island). This all adds up to a winning, engaging and very human presence, a person you can imagine getting to know.

Wilson, who has done superb work as a producer on his own Gentle Spirit and on Father John Misty's Fear Fun, sets each song like a little gem. Though he's known for embodying the sound of Laurel Canyon and California in general, he's not locked into any one sound. The hooks on Come Get Me, for example, come courtesy tuned tom toms, a fat synth, and perfectly placed tambourines. The solo section on the same song features a few licks from an electric sitar followed a spray of space rock from Benji Lysaght's guitar. None of this detail is gimmicky, however, just in service of the songs. Other songs touch on funk and southern rock swagger (I can imagine Good Love showing up on the soundtrack of Justified).

Some of the songs are quite short, and the album as a whole goes by quickly, but that should be an invitation to slow down and pay closer attention. There's a lot of emotional and musical detail packed in on Automechanic and not a lot a wasted space. Jenny O. has done her homework well grafting DNA from Lennon, McCartney, Stills, Nash, Nicks and other "classic rockers" into her own distinctive style. I think we'll be hearing more from Jenny O, but right now I'm just looking forward to seeing her perform these terrific songs with a full band. While there are no dates in my area yet, others have plenty of opportunity.

Listen to Come Get Me
Come Get Me

Johnny Marr - The Messenger Thanks to the many, many interviews Marr has done to promote this album, we have more details on the classicist impulses of his first band, The Smiths. From emulating the sound of The Shangri-Las, to having definite ideas about the color of the label on their first single, Marr and co-conspirator Morrissey turned a decade of in-depth study of their forbears into what became the finest English rock band of the 80's, and one of the best of all time.

As endlessly stunning and inventive as Marr's work is on those Smiths records, I have found his latter career quite underwhelming. Yes, there have been a few terrific gun-for-hire moments like The Right Stuff, his co-write with Bryan Ferry. Before giving The Messenger another full listen, I spent the day listening to Electronic, his band with New Order's perpetually weedy Bernard Sumner (embarrassing stuff), the album he did with Modest Mouse (Isaac Brock is awful and Marr makes little impression), Talk Talk's Mind Bomb (aiding and abetting Matt Johnson's pretentious twaddle), and the album he did with The Cribs (pretty good, but they also do fine without him).

Unfortunately, after all the publicity, The Messenger turns out to be a highly mediocre effort that too often cranks up the energy levels to obscure the colorless production, characterless singing and sophomoric lyrics. There are some nifty guitar sounds and arrangements, but nothing that surprises or tantalizes like How Soon Is Now, or entrances like Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now or Ask. On the whole, The Messenger sounds like the work of someone hung up on his own hype, and stuck in the past. Not only has he turned his classicist tendencies toward less interesting source material than he used in The Smiths, but those tendencies seem to have gotten the best of him on this airless album.

I would say it sounds like it could been have made 10 years ago, but the fact is Marr made a better record 10 years ago. Though The Messenger is being touted as his first solo album, in 2003 he released Boomslang (terrible title, I know) under the name Johnny Marr & the Healers. He sings more naturally on Boomslang, there's more variety to the production, the rhythm section (including Zak Starkey) feels more flexible and the songs are more dynamic. He also does a nice job of incorporating other influences from the past, including a warm psychedelia that's unexpected. It's in no way a classic, but looking back, it pointed toward a future that had the potential to be more interesting than what has actually happened in Marr's career. Message received: As good a guitarist (and interviewee) as he is, Marr's album is a dud.

More to come - I have pre-orders of Atoms for Peace and Wire in the works, and just received an advance of the new album from Nicholas Cords of Brooklyn Rider.

How's 2013 shaping up for you so far?

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