too much typing—since 2003


"find the words to feed the ghost"

This may or may not be the first in a series of entries about overlooked CDs in my collection. (It might not be the first either because I never get around to writing the second, or because I've probably already written such an entry...) Some of them may have been passed over in the general music buzz, others might have been overlooked by me no matter how buzzed about.

James Angell Private Player (2001)

I'll start at the beginning of the alphabet with James Angell's Private Player, from 2001. Already there's a bit of confusion, see...because although my edition (on Portland's Psycheclectic Records, which apparently no longer exists, judging from its missing website) came out in 2001, apparently the album was reissued in 2002...and digging around the web, I see this article, which refers to the album as "new" even though the article dates from February of 2003.

Private Player, which features some trumpet from Eric Matthews, and production and playing from ex-Heatmiser drummer Tony Lash, has certainly received some attention, and from some rather high-profile folks (as the "In Music We Trust" article reveals). But it hasn't found a critical or commercial niche - most likely because it's anything but a straightforward listen. Even when you've become familiar with it, it doesn't slot readily into any particular genre. Angell's main instrument is piano, and moments are slightly singer-songwritery - but other moments are electronic (in moods both atmospheric and crunching), some textures and chord voicings are rather jazz-like (somewhat in the manner of early David Sylvian), and the song structures don't really fit into any of those genres, in some cases being nearly through-composed in the manner of art songs. Yet it feels heartfelt, not overly "artistic" or analytical - even though it's plenty smart.

The opening track, "Ooh Love," is probably the album's most conventional, in that it has a clearly identifiable chorus. It begins with a backing chordal piano pattern and a slinky, string-like ascending synth pattern. But then Angell twists the beat up with a tricky syncopation, and the verses and choruses ebb and flow into one another, so it's often a challenge defining the line where they meet and separate. Angell's voice here almost reminds me of Mark Linkous's (from Sparklehorse), and indeed that band's warped electro-folk is a reasonable comparison, except that Angell's music sounds far less rooted in any tradition. "Ed Blue Bottle" begins with a slinky, jazzy acoustic bass rhythm, and Angell's low-register vocal calls to mind a Tom Waits before the whisky and cigarettes did their work - but then the song seems to be submersed in odd buzzing and whining noises. "Call Off the War" is one of my favorite tracks here - it begins with murky synth strings and atonal space tones, as Angell hazards the vocal melody line, before suddenly the band enters as the melody launches in to a peculiar modulation that, in fact, proves to be the song's chorus. Tony Lash overlies a few odd-sounding rhythm loops, and those synth strings and space tones prove to be the song's verse, although the changes they outline seem almost impervious to conventional chordal analysis. And then there's "Picture Perfect," which begins with what sounds like electronically altered fragments of a blues song played on an old Victrola: these prove to be fragments of the song itself, which actually is a blues. Kind of... "Dear Dying Friend" takes a distorted, mechanical loop and gradually surrounds it with levels of increasingly crushing noise, while the song itself somehow marries a fairly delicate piano-based verse melody to a stomping, robotic chorus that could be a sentient stamping mill's interpretation of a Slade song. This, by the way, isn't any fun at all: it sounds less like release and more like onrushing terror, alleviated slightly by a very pretty middle section featuring wordless female background vocals. And have I mentioned that the last track features Angell's daughter reciting from a textbook on quantum physics in a voice that makes it sound more like "Alice in Wonderland"?

So yeah, it's kinda hard to figure out what's going on here. What holds it together, though, is Angell's talent for arranging and allowing songs to emerge, however gradually, from the rather dense production. Angell also gives you the sense that his lyrics, more suggestion than declaration, mean something to him, even if the specifics of those lyrics are often less than clear. And that, finally, I think is what makes Private Player so powerful: even though it's often difficult at any given moment to know why this note, this sound, this lyric is where it is, each is placed both intensely and with intention (however blurred from our perspective). The gap between that intensity and the uncertainty of our reaction to it creates a sense of (literally) wonder, a space of suggestion, that creates a landscape for the listener's imagination, a landscape which surrounds and grows from Angell's music and lyrics.

1 comment:

Trickish Knave said...

Jeff, as always I very much enjoy reading your music reviews. This time your review of the artist is unfamiliar to me so I guess I have somesearching to do for the album. I trust your taste in music (anyone who likes BOC can't be all that bad) so I will look for tabs for this artist as well.

AAMOF, I was thinking of your BOC post thread the other day in which you mentioned an open G on the guitar that really drew the listener into the song. I found another song that does that, at least for me, in the Animals hit House of the Rising Sun. The last E chord strum or arpeggio, depending on the measure of the song, has me hitting that open E and really sets up the song for the next verse.

That is about as technical as I get in my reviews. Thanks again for a smart and enjoyable read.