WELCOME TO THE WORLD OF TOMORROW
Well welcome to 2014 anyway, has anyone noticed anything different from 2013 yet? We’re of course back now having taken a bit of a break over the Christmas period because frankly in the music industry nothing happens.
Yes there’s end of year lists to debate, the odd gig announcement, but with pretty much no releases scheduled, the festive period is a pretty tough one for the average music fan. Well good news everybody, that’s over now and the release schedule will soon be kicking back into gear, the Febuary/March gig rush isn’t far away and before you know it we’ll back into the festival season with a bang (the festival season used to be about two things but is now pretty much every weekend from March to October)
So anyway what does 2014 have in store from your (I can only assume) favourite music blog? Well I’m considering a whole new feature (more on that soon), I’m going to be re-hashing some old favourites, but essentially more of the same. Bob Dylan may have said that times they are a-changin’ but equally Curtis Mayfield told us to keep on keeping on, and who am I to argue with either of them.
Anyway let’s kick 2014 off with a bang, or perhaps more accurately a Fanfare!
JONATHAN WILSON – FANFARE
Jonathan Wilson may have not even been born when in 1969 Graham Nash wrote Laurel Canyon’s most famous song “Our House” about Joni Mitchell, but the influence of the bands of the area and the time are ones Wilson wear’s openly and honestly. On top of his love for the sound lately he’s been credited with re-booting the entire Laurel Canyon scene. His now infamous jam sessions, which he started with Black Crowes frontman Chris Robinson, saw huge names like Elvis Costello, David Crosby and yes Graham Nash turn up to jam in his back yard. Modern Americana legends like Father John Misty and members of Wilco also came as it became the hot-bed of a particular sort of sound, well it did until his landlord evicted Jonathan for making far too much noise! How many great rock’n’roll stories involve landlords complaining about noise?
On second album Fanfare we see the ever ambitious Mr.Wilson (no relation to any of the Beach Boys if you were wondering) trying to take that Laurel Canyon sound to an international audience. He’s also done a pretty job of rounding up pretty much everyone who jammed in his backyard to help him make it. Recorded in Los Angeles over a 9-week period that saw Jonathan produce the album himself with the help of engineer Bryce Gonzales, the recording process sounds fascinating. Mixing grandiose instrumentation with his natural instinct to do everything himself was always going to be tricky but with a little help from his friends he’s made something rather special here!
To quote wikipedia “a fanfare is normally a relatively short piece of music that is typically played by trumpets, cornet, french horns, or other brass instuments, often accompanied by percussion.” Well on title track and opening numbers Fanfare I think it’s only right to point out Jonathan may have not read that definition correctly! For starters it clocks in at just over seven minutes long, also I don’t think that the average fanfare starts with the sound of baby chicks being fed through an echoplex tape delay unit. Honestly i’m not making that up it’s lifted straight from his website! What we do get from Fanfare is a wonderful introduction to the Steinway-Concert Piano which holds this album together so beautifully. Borrowed for the session via Craigslist it is by Wilson’s own admittance “the beating heart” of the album. Once the delayed chicks parts done with we get a get a gorgeous piano introduction. Then comes the fanfare! Crashing percussion, sweeping strings and possibly even a gong! It’s grandiose and ambitious and there’s a definite touch of Flaming Lips to it’s lilting melancholia. The strings play out a tune that sounds a touch like Hey Jude but far better. It takes over 3 minutes for Jonathan to bring in his stunning voice! “Ooh let me love you, it’s all that I can do, not to touch you” he coos, lyrically it may not be groundbreaking, but whoever this heartfelt love song is for is probably not too worried as it’s a thing of great beauty. A squalling, skwaking saxophone takes us to a break down, and we get a reprise of the opening piano riff, plus some darn good 70s sounding bass. Even without the presence of half of them the influence of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would be pretty clear throughout this record.
The intro to second track Dear Friend recalls Fleet Foxes off-shoot Poor Moon, all vocal harmonies and simple guitar lines. The instrumentation is clever, growing fuller on every repeated line as strings, piano and fluttering drums come to the front. All the beauty of the intro comes crashing down around a scuzzy electric guitar that’s pure Americana. It’s Neil Young, it’s Wilco, it’s quite a bit like “Almost Cut My Hair”. The whole track’s on a waltz beat that plays a perfect companion to the heavier guitar line. We get an instrumental section around three minutes in, that lasts for three minutes, that should be far too long. However a gorgeous guitar that despite it’s languid style, fizzes with energy, and it’s latterly joined by a gorgeous Hammond Organ which borrows it’s influence heavily from The Doors so despite it’s length you don’t ever want it to end. The lyrics fleetingly return at the end almost to remind you what song that particular jam session was connected to. It’s a track with a tremendous sense of freedom, borrowing heavily on prog influences.
“Her Hair Is Growing Long” may be the most hippy sounding song title of the year, but it’s sadly not a big wig out. It’s a gentle acoustic number, lyrically it’s pretty darn hippyish too “I am saved by her rainbow eyes” sure you are Jonathan! However the layered vocals more than make up for the slightly shonky lyrics. As he utters “her hair is growing long” we get some brilliant percussion giving the track a renewed sense of energy. The vocals become utterly stunning, close nit harmonies as he repeats the line “You know the night goes on” The hazy atmosphere recalls fellow Bella Union stars Midlake. Like Midlake, Wilson too seems to be a master of pacing songs, sections flow in and out of one another effortlessly and he reprises earlier sections without anything over staying it’s welcome.
Future Vision starts with a crescendo of noise via pounding drum rolls and classic country slides on a guitar, it soons gives way to a Beatlesish piano line and it’s metamorphosis into a love song is complete. It’s a grandiose pop song, not entirely unlike Elton John in many ways, who’s actually more of an influence here than you’d expect. After two minutes of that of course Wilson takes it off in a new direction, a soul song emerges that reminds you of another 2013 revivalist (and another For The Rabbits favourite) Matthew E.White. With the shift into soul we also get a lyrical and tonal shift, as “storm clouds gather, looks like soot covered the clear blue sky”. The whole song, swings with a splendid bounce and the treatment of guitars, and vocals (including a rather lovely harmony from Josh Tillman) is fascinating and inventive throughout. The whole thing collapses back to that gorgeous piano line and is joined by tiny bursts of strings that are reminiscent of the cellos so wonderfully used by Nick Drake.
Moses Pain is pure Dylan, a simple picked guitar line, fluttering drums and a subtle organ sound. It’s a wonderful slab of Americana again marking Wilson out as contemporary of Ryan Adams (they should have a jam sometime, it could have beautiful results) Lyrically it’s a storytelling folk number. The great joy here is in the ever changing instrumentation, it moves so quickly you need to keep your ears pealed to notice. Bursts of piano, organs, harmonicas, electric guitars and all sort of other things float in and out effortlessly for such a subtle number it’s tremendously ambitious. It also features some utterly stunning, crystal clear harmonies, but when the guest list contains Graham Nash & Jackson Browne that’s no surprise.
Fazon is the albums most bonkers moment. Blasts of Saxophone and some squalling electronics introduce what’s frankly a rather sleazy little number. The lyrics continue on an equally unlikely path, Jonathan’s wondering who’s going to live in all those houses underground, before he jumps to a chorus that consists of the words “Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa Fazon Fazon” that’s oddly catchy and unlikely to get out of your head for a while. He goes on to speculate about who’s going to be living under the sea & who’s going to go on all those trips into out of space. It’s all rather odd stuff to be worrying about, so odd in fact it’s hard not to think you’re listening to a particularly competent Flight Of The Conchords song, it’s none the worse for that though!
His much publicised co-write with Roy Harper, New Mexico, is a flighty thing. Starting with bursts of flute and a jumpy guitar line it takes a minute or so to settle down into anything much, a buzzing organ drone is the catalyst and it holds the first three minutes of the song together. Three minutes in it suddenly becomes a classic rock song. There’s more than a hint of The Doors or even The Eagles about it. With Jonathan Wilson there’s always time for another break down and we get one, he reprises the guitar line from the intro once more, he coos “I knew I couldn’t trust you but I loved you just the same” and the backing vocals get frankly a bit creepy.
Lovestrong is another classic pop-song, this time a downbeat ballad. A touch of the Verve’s sadder numbers, mixed with John Lennon’s solo career. The interplay of the meandering piano line and the Claptonlike slow guitar solo is a truly gorgeous thing. We get thrown a touch of calypso in a break down, but then it’s back down the serious business of that haunting piano and vocal. It’s one of the albums highlights perhaps only topped by closing song All The Way Down. All The Way Down starts with a call and response guitar line, and a touch of piano which are as gorgeous as they are downbeat. The vocal is hauntingly melancholic, and very personal by Wilson’s standards. “I like it down here, nobody judges my sad eyes” he notes, before going on to reminisce about the time when “I’d never heard this song but still it made me cry” he wouldn’t be arrogant enough to write it about his own song, but this ones bound to bring a tear or two to many an eye. It’s one of the most gorgeous tracks I’ve heard this year, and one that will stay with me for a very long time indeed. It’s moments like this that make you forgive the odd over complicated, over long moment. When you can be this good, you can get away with being self indulgent.
On this wonderful album Wilson pulled together the great and good of Americana’s past and present, and clearly his love of what’s come before is key to the sound he’s producing. However what truly stands out, for all his backward looking, is his ability to sound fresh and exciting. He’s an incredible talent and in a crowded marketplace of a genre that you could easily think had been drank dry he’s still produced something that’s a triumph and uniquely his own. For that we can only be delighted, and slightly sorry I didn’t hear it before I compiled my list of 2013’s best albums (sorry Jonathan!)
Fanfare is out now on Bella Union. Jonathan Wilson plays Village Underground in London on June 3rd (and I’ve got a ticket!)