Saturday, December 14, 2013

Ambition: Not A Four-Letter Word

Sometimes it seems that ambition is a dirty word, a way to damn with faint praise and an acknowledgment that an artist's ideas have exceeded his or her talent. Four recent albums, all among the best of the year, put the lie to that construct.

Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare His last album, Gentle Spirit, was my dark horse (George Harrison reference purely intentional) of 2011, spotted by chance on a crowd-sourced Spotify playlist started by the late, lamented Word magazine and taking a firm place in my top ten. Gentle Spirit was located at a Laurel Canyon intersection of Pink Floyd and Gram Parsons and featured Wilson's virtuosic guitar accompanied by his warm tenor and a band consisting mainly of himself. I played Gentle Spirit for many people and nearly everyone who heard it had their eyes closed and their head nodding by the third track, if not before - he brings the bliss.

Those with mainstream tastes and a tolerance for ham-handed lyrics probably know Wilson as the producer of Dawes, but his studio skills have been better employed by Father John Misty on 2012's brilliant Fear Fun and Jenny O.'s wonderful Automechanic, released earlier in this year. Somewhere in the midst of working on those records as well as putting his hand in Roy Harper's Man & Myth and touring extensively, Wilson has found the time to put together Fanfare, a sprawling double-vinyl length affair that finds him working with some of the legends to whom his sound pays homage.

Even with the guests, there is no mistaking that this is Wilson's album. You gotta wonder what David Crosby and Graham Nash thought when he brought them to sing on Cecil Taylor (who's "on the White House lawn," apparently) after laying down tracks for guitars, bass, piano, Hammond organ, drums and percussion. I suppose they've seen it all by now and, after all, he did have to get someone else to play the flugelhorn! Just as on Gentle Spirit, however, all of this one-man-band stuff is no stunt, but is in service of Wilson's rich songs and the evocative sound he's after. If you didn't read the credits, you would assume each song was recorded by a group of simpatico virtuosos sitting in a circle and making beautiful music together.

Fanfare is definitely on a grander scale than Gentle Spirit, with episodic compositions that take the listener on dynamic journeys to inner space. He also adds a few new textures to his palette, as on Love To Love, which mingles sprightly Yoakam-esque country with Dylan and some dark, jazzy chords in a way that surprises even after the first hearing. Actually, there are several moments that astonish repeatedly: Benmont Tench's rhapsodic piano solo on Moses Pain, Wilson's hair-raising harmony vocals on Her Hair Is Growing Long, the expansive guitars of Dear Friend, the tough, funky breakdown in Lovestrong, among others. Speaking of tough, among the exploratory (OK, slightly hippy dippy) lyrics, Lovestrong features the wonderfully nasty line, "Coyote would chew off his own paw to get out of what you've tried to achieve, lady." I can hear that idiot wind blowing...

Mixing bitterness with optimism was also a specialty of the latter day edition of The Sopwith Camel, who were relics of sixties San Francisco (their hit was the regrettable Hello, Hello), when they reformed to record a second album in the early 70's. Wilson resurrects Fazon from that album here, perfecting their proto jazz-funk investigation into alternative housing ("Who's gonna live in all those cities underground?") with respect and depth. You don't have to move underground to enjoy Fanfare, just turn off the shuffle play and allow yourself to be transported. Wilson will be touring extensively in 2014 - get there.

The Darcys - Warring Speaking of ambition, how about attempting a full-album cover of the top-selling record by one of the most complex and technically assured bands of all time? That's exactly what Toronto band The Darcys did when they released their take on Steely Dan's Aja in early 2012. It was a complete success, mining the rich vein of darkness hidden in Becker and Fagen's slick studio funk. It was also a great introduction to The Darcys sound, which features Michael le Riche and Jason Couse's heavily treated guitars and keyboards, Dave Hurlow's stabbing, aggressive bass, and Wes Marskell's alternately busy and spacious drums. Couse is also the singer, often exploring his upper range to soar above the band's driving soundscapes.

Warring, their third record with the current line up, is the most complete expression of their art and ethos yet. No longer marred by the somewhat murky sound and slightly directionless songwriting that characterized the self-titled debut, The Darcys freely explore dub-infused space and unleash melodic and memorable choruses while delivering a set of songs filled with variety and dynamics. Couse's singing is more confident than ever and instead of Steely Dan's bleak LA tales, he draws on Cormac McCarthy's even bleaker Blood Meridian for lyrical inspiration.

The strongest cut may be the last, Lost Dogfights, which takes the tempo of a dead man walking, expressed mainly by Marskell's brick-hard drums. Hurlow's bass plays more space than notes, and a piano ostinato repeats like a recurrent nightmare that doesn't end when you wake up. There are also ghostly vocal harmonies and spidery guitar and synth, all adding up to a place of despairing beauty. Like McCarthy's gimlet-eyed vision of the west, it's a place you'll want to visit often.

Son Lux - Lanterns Ryan Lott, who releases music under the name Son Lux, seemed to come out of nowhere in 2008 when he released his debut, At War With Walls & Mazes. It was a fascinating song cycle that drew on his skills as a trained composer and on his love for contemporary production techniques as used in the realms of hip hop and electronic music. It was alternately thorny and contemplative and his passion for breaking barriers between genres - and people in general - came through loud and clear. It made a lot of top ten lists, including my own.

The follow up, recorded during a 28 day period as part of the RPM project, did not work for me at all. The elements were in place but the songs on We Are Rising seemed enervated, devoid of all forward motion. As much as I tried to like it, listening to it never ceased to be a chore. Now comes Lanterns, a rhapsodic collection that may be his best yet. The sonics are his most accomplished and innovative, with a joyful energy to many of the songs. Lost It To Trying and No Crimes are splashy and fun, the real "artpop" (sorry Gaga), while sparer tracks like Easy and Pyre seem to construct and deconstruct before your very ears.

While Son Lux occupies some of the same space as Dirty Projectors and Tuneyards, Lott deploys his talents with none of their arch condescension, a quality which makes listening to those critical darlings impossible for me. Nonetheless, fans of those bands and anyone who gets excited by the collision of compositional intelligence, production chops and savvy songwriting should let their musical universe be brightened by Lanterns.

Isadora - EP Since we're discussing artful and ambitious releases, allow me to introduce you to Isadora, whose debut came out near the beginning of the year. I discovered them when they were on the bill with Napoleon (who I discovered at the Mystical Weapons show earlier in 2013). Of course, I investigated Isadora before the show to see if I should plan to stay for their set. I knew within a minute or two of the first song, that I wouldn't want to miss them. While their debts (to Radiohead and The Beatles, among others) are clear, they have more than enough of their own personality to make their EP one of the most promising debuts of the year.

Over the course of the EP, they demonstrate a sure hand at crafting complex songs full of organic tempo changes and dynamic shifts in volume and tone. There's an experiential quality to their music, where by the end of each song you feel like you've been through something. This is even more apparent in concert, where they push the dynamics to the limit, but the crystal clear recording doesn't sacrifice the sense of spontaneity and interaction that helps their music achieve liftoff.

The five members of Isadora are all excellent musicians, with Nick Burleigh an important double threat on both guitar and violin, Joshua Rouah mainly playing atmospheric keyboards but also guitar on occasion, Ian Mellencamp melodic but not groove-averse on bass, and Jesse Bilotta knowing just when to ratchet up on the drums and when to lay back. Aaron Mendelsohn's vocals show a lot of range and flexibility, going from a reflective croon to a biting intensity as the song demands. Together, the music they make is incredibly satisfying. Get the EP now and keep an ear out for more from Isadora in the future.

Coming Next: But of course - The Best of 2013 and The Best of The Rest of 2013. 

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