Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Father John Misty

A longstanding paradox when considering artistic endeavors is that an artist or performer will often assume an alternative identity in order to convey the thoughts, feelings and ideas that are actually central to their real persona. This has been the case from writers like Mark Twain to contemporary rock artists to U2's Bono and any number of British musicians who cultivated a stage name (Reginald Dwight, Gordon Sumner, etc) that led them to widespread fame. While we don't know whether such popular acclaim ultimately finds this week's profilee – Joshua Tillman, known now by his alter ego, Father John Misty – his journey of personal revelation to his audience is well-served by his first release under the new moniker, Fear Fun, out last April 30 on Sub Pop Records.

Fans of the indie folk-rock act Fleet Foxes may recognize Tillman's name, as he served as that group's drummer from 2008 through the beginning of 2012. But before – and during – that tenure, he released a series of seven solo albums – along with a handful of EPs – under his given name. While Tillman was a talented musician, his material was too intentionally earnest and as a result, not very interesting. At the same time, Tillman would receive feedback from his small live audiences that his on-stage persona was far more engaging than what he had dedicated to record to date.

Following the most recent Fleet Foxes tour – which ended last January – Tillman thanked the band for the gig and re-purposed himself as Father John Misty, a songwriter, musician and performer more committed to fully expressing his true self via music. The result is the dozen tracks of quirky folk-rock displayed on Fear Fun.

Fitting comfortably in the country-tinged, folk-rock territory first explored by the likes of George Harrison and Gram Parsons and encountered frequently today through acts like Southeast Engine (NMT, NMT), Telegraph Canyon (NMT), Lost in the Trees (NMT) and The Head and the Heart (NMT) – with a touch of the witty pop sensibilities of a Butch Walker (NMT) or Jonathan Coulton (NMT) – Tillman's Father John Misty material is smart, interesting and honest, the result of his successful mission to rediscover himself, which he admits is occasionally colored by the mind-altering influences of psychedelic mushrooms. This most outward expression of this effort is the record's closing, dusty-trails ballad, "Every Man Needs a Companion." After exploring the friendship between Jesus Christ and John the Baptist – Tillman's perspective on spirituality is unclear as the album unfolds – he relates his own struggle with his identity:

So I had to write my own / Like I'm hung up on religion / 
Though I know it's a waste
I never liked the name Joshua / I got tired of J

Elsewhere, the collection has a couple standout numbers that reflect Tillman's new found lightheartedness in uptempo formats. "I'm Writing a Novel" is certainly the album's finest product, a spirited blend of Appalachian folk – akin to much of Southeast Engine's catalog – with a oddball narrative that's evident from the number's opening stanza:

I ran down the road, pants down to my knees
Screaming "please come help me, 

that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!"
And I'm writing a novel because it's never been done before

It's a surreal narrative, one likely influenced by his psychedelic experiences, and is a fitting compliment to the record's absurd cover art, which lies somewhere between a depiction of George Harrison-esque mysticism and a Katy Perry video:

Later on, the tawdry countrified foot-stomper, "Tee Pees 1-12" is likewise a delightfully similar mess of unlikely events and goofy self-discovery, and is the sort of stuff the Father John Misty character is most comfortable in dealing. 

The album's real problem is there's too many mid- to slow-tempo numbers here. My general preference is a 3-2-1 apportionment of uptempo cuts to mid- and slow-paced songs. Here, Tillman offers something closer to a 1-3-2 distribution, with the previously mentioned, joy-filled romps really the only briskly-paced fare on the compilation. Sure, "Hollywood Forever Cemetery Sings" is noisy with its grainy electric guitars – a rarity on this record – and the drums are heavy with rattling cymbals, but it doesn't really get going at any point. 

Of course, this imbalance doesn't mean any of the songs are particularly bad themselves. Opener "Fun Times in Babylon" provides an interesting table-setting perspective, and "Only Son of the Ladiesman" is quirky without a hint of hubris or pretension that might be found if, for example, John Mayer were to write the same song. Meanwhile, "This Is Sally Hatchet" is unmistakably Beatles-driven, with its punchy piano and jagged guitar,  and "Misty's Nightmares 1 & 2" could be pulled directly from the Gram Parsons playbook. It's all fine stuff, but there's just too much of the same all in a row. At the same time, no individual track is worthy of banishment, but rather would be nice if they were part of a larger portfolio over the course of several albums of more uptempo material. Perhaps that's something Tillman can work on, after so confidently establishing a new direction for his career.

Come for: "I'm Writing a Novel"
Stay for: "Tee Pees 1-12"
You'll be surprised by: "This Is Sally Hatchet"

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Passion Pit

The single June post of this recently sparsely populated blog offered a long-winded exploration of my thoughts on electronic music via the electronica-rock synthesis act, Metric (NMT). It will be helpful to have that understanding in mind when considering this week's profilee, Passion Pit and their second full-length release, Gossamer (which like last week's review of The Gaslight Anthem's Handwritten (NMT), also was released on July 24th, but here on the Columbia Records label).

More than just a single DJ – or even a pair – claiming to be a larger musical act, this Cambridge, Mass., quintet is truly a band that happens to perform electronic-dominated music. While Buffalo-born and raised frontman Michael Angelakos (who, incidentally attended middle school with your blogger's brother) is the outfit's primary source of material, his colleagues contribute to a broader execution of that sound in live settings – often including actual musical instruments such as guitar, bass and drums instead of the straight electronic programming relied on so extensively in the genre.

To that end, the dozen-track collection's opener and leadoff single, "Take a Walk" is everything that most electronica output usually is not: tightly structured, immediately accessible and narrative. Following a brief and dreamy opening sequence, the thumping number plows ahead with strident rhythm from drummer Nate Donmoyer and bassist Jeff Apruzzese, identifiable riffs from guitarist Ian Hultquist and linear keyboard and synthesizer paths from Angelakos and Xander Singh. On top of this well-balanced construction, Angelakos relays the tale of a new immigrant in the America of the Great Recession. What, if any, political message Angelakos is trying to convey here is uncertain, but the tone is certainly timely with lines such as, "but then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone / He made some bad investments, now the accounts are overdrawn."

Gone from the band's approach after its 2008 EP, Chunk of Change, and its breakout 2009 full-length debut, Manners, is Angelakos' reliance on stratospheric falsetto vocals, replacing them here with his natural, albeit still high tenor range. The shift is apparent on "Take A Walk," as well as its frenetic follow-up, "I'll Be Alright." Seemingly a direct reference to his ongoing struggles with bipolar disorder and suicide attempts, the number's pesky, high-pitch samples and ongoing sonic chaos suggests a personality in perpetual conflict.

The concerning struggle that unfolds on "I'll Be Alright" is supplanted by the jubilant "Carried Away." Punchy and staccatoed verses buoyed by pre-programmed beats are swept away by the effervescent sing-along chorus, all the while belling its role as an extended apology for emotional turmoil, perhaps in a self-referential sense. Here, and elsewhere throughout the record, Angelakos' vocals are bolstered by the contributions of the Swedish vocal trio, Erato – whose cottage cheese container-backed covers of pop hits made them a YouTube sensation. Whether their inclusion was influenced by Angelakos or arranged by producer Chris Zane – who helmed the group's previous recordings – its a smart move to balance out Angelakos' presence over the collection. The number finds a complementary bookend later on in the form of the equally perky and belting chorus of "Hideaway," once it takes its leave of its unproductive minute-long intro.

Another new twist from previous efforts is Angelakos' take on blue-eyed soul on "Constant Conversations." The song's slower pace and R&B accompaniments is a stark contrast from the breezy romps of most of the group's material. But the stomping roots of techno come flaring back on "Mirrored Sea," with its heavily-electronic verses and waves of falsetto choruses from Angelakos across the sonic transom. It's a little blippy in the verses for my taste, but the hefty chorus largely compensate for the sparseness elsewhere, especially the redundant and uninteresting bridge part.

The pairing of the mid-record devotionals – to Silvia ("Cry Like a Ghost") and Christina ("On My Way") sets back the collection's tempo without much pizazz or passion, although the latter's chorus isn't a bad use of a hook, with bright organ underpinnings and an escalating beat. Even less compelling is the closer, "Where We Belong," who's lazy programming and mundane tone is the type of setting least conducive to Angelakos' approach.

But, fortunately, the combination of the brief, a-capella "Two Veils to Hide My Face" and the majestic fanfare of "Love Is Greed" are among the most adventurous the album has to offer. There seems to be much more waiting in the wings in the former that never gets its turn on stage in its short 34 seconds, and the Angelakos-Eroto grouping once again is a stellar match. And the bouncy and intricate intro of the latter obediently prances in the background after the numbers pulsing beat finds its way to the forefront, recalling the record's opener in the process.

Come for: "Take A Walk"
Stay for: Carried Away"
You'll be surprised by: "Two Veils to Hide My Face" / "Love Is Greed"

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Gaslight Anthem – Handwritten

Sorry folks; it's just been too busy lately to keep up with new posts with any regularity. Fall brings hope of less commotion, so stay tuned till then for, perhaps, a return to more frequent posts.

With that mea culpa out of the way, we can turn our attention to the latest release from the act that has received the most attention in this space: the New Jersey-based rock quartet, The Gaslight Anthem and their fourth full-length album, Handwritten – out on July 24 on Mercury Records.

As we discussed in reviewing their previous effort, 2010's American Slang (NMT), the four-piece unit has been on a gradual march away from the Springsteen-via-The Clash fusion that dominated their early work such as 2007's Sink or Swim and 2008's The '59 Sound (NMT). And while both The Boss and the quintessential punk band reside at the functional heart of everything the band does, the ongoing shift to a more distinctive sound and style is marked by slower, harder and more personal material than before, all apparent moreso than ever on Handwritten.

Of course, with such a lead-in, the first couple tracks are naturally boilerplate replication's of their original approach. The kinetic "45" features the driving punk energy of The Clash blended with frontman Brain Fallon's Springsteenian narrative nostalgia. This isn't to say its recidivist work from Fallon and company; if you were previously drawn by the group's sound, more of the same is certainly no objection. It, and the follow-up title track will fit in nicely in the extended catalog alongside similar hard-charging numbers like "The Patient Ferris Wheel" or "We Came to Dance."

The real departure emerges on the third track, "Here Comes My Man." The Byrds'-style jangly eight-string electric guitar from Alex Rosamilia and Fallon's acoustic recalls Mellancamp heartland rock, a step away from the more coastal punk sound. Although Fallon has delivered acoustic material before on Gaslight Anthem records, those efforts we more solo, singer/songwriter compositions rather than woven onto the full band structure. At the same time, the slower pace and oldies rock chorus of "sha-la-la la" hardly is stock issue recasting either.

Meanwhile, "Mulholland Drive" is darker and harder than its preceding counterpart, with the rhythm section of bassist Alex Levine and Benny Horowitz at the forefront over Fallon's chugging guitar. Rosamilia does brighten the mood with his signature bright and high-fretboard figures during the verses along with a wailing solo at the bridge – a rarity for a band that doesn't feature much instrumental variation. The trend towards harder and slower continues on the bluesy "Keepsake," again allowing Rosamilia to move center stage. The number also introduces blood as a recurring theme across the 11-track collection, imagery that connects hearts, emotions and actions. The concept finds its obvious peak on "Too Much Blood," even more plodding and crunching than its predecessors. Here, Fallon revisits his throaty blues howl previously heard on older numbers like "The Diamond Street Church Choir" and "We're Getting a Divorce, You Keep the Dinner."   

The shimmering briskness of their previous life isn't abandoned altogether, however. A pair of later-appearing cuts – the appropriately succinctly-titled "Howl" and "Desire" – both recapture the sprinting pace of the Gaslight oeuvre and are completely enjoyable for that reason. But they're evened out by the sludgy "Biloxi Parish" – featuring a growling bass line from Levine – and the moody "Mae" to demonstrate the group's commitment to its darker direction. Closing out the affair is another Brian Fallon Sings! acoustic contribution in the deceptively apolitical "National Anthem."

Come for: "45"
Stay for: "Handwritten"
You'll be surprised by: "Here Comes My Man"

P.S. – In addition to Fallon's extensive work with The Gaslight Anthem, we also covered his Horrible Crowes (NMT) sideproject last year.

P.P.S. – The album's deluxe version features interesting covers of Nirvana's nearly-comical "Sliver" – with its memorable "grandma take me home" chorus – and Petty's "You Got Lucky" along with the original "Blue Dahlia," which is more in keeping with the band's original signature sound.