Magical new albums from Brandon Schott, Pop 4 and Vanilla make beautiful noise
Review by Alan Haber
“It’s a beautiful noise/And it’s a sound that I love/And it fits me as well/As a hand in a glove/Yes it does, yes it does,” Neil Diamond sings on the title song from his 1976 album. These are wise words from a well-known tunesmith–a prophecy that is fulfilled every time a songwriter puts pen to paper and crafts a song out of creative clay. Like a seed planted in the soil, a fully-realized idea spins into a form made from the coming together of a melody, words grown into lyrical lines, and choruses and bridges fashioned as strips of gold.
Songwriters work in mysterious ways. How does the spark of an idea flower into a fully-formed entity? Where do ideas even come from? How does the magic work?
It is all this side of mystical, the songwriting process; anyone who has knowledge of how it all comes together holds in his or her palm the secret of life, for art is the soul of life, and if you can sing along and you maybe know the words, you’re a rich person indeed.
This year’s crop of melodic pop recordings clearly and distinctly demonstrates that the magic works when the right person is holding the pen and the ideas are finely honed because their creativity knows no bounds and because they know how a song works. They know this in their bones. And when their bones rattle after they’ve put their pens down and their song is ready to be heard, the magic is working like a charm.
This summer’s crop of melodic pop recordings, of songs exuding considerable skill and charm, constitutes the best of the best in a year teeming with such accomplishment. The latest records from Brandon Schott and Vanilla, and the debut record from supergroup Pop 4, share a facility for this kind of flash. These records are among the best of the year–towering achievements all. You can dance to them, if you like, negotiating the two-step or the moonwalk, if that’s what moves you.
A Triumphant Stroll
Brandon Schott’s masterful Crayons and Angels, the follow-up to 2011’s studio album 13 Satellites, and this past March’s intimate Dandelion (Live at the Treatment Room: January 10, 2008), is more than a flash of magic–it is by far Brandon’s best, most fully-realized record, a triumphant stroll through the creative pastures that subsist in the fields of the heart. Working with a broad textural palette and with his eyes and ears wide open to varied influence, he creates a three-dimensional song cycle that dazzles.
The stage is set by the gentle, windswept instrumental “Dandelion,” a quite peaceful mix of ambient sound, delicate instrumentation and a brief wash of glowing harmony. A calm trance of sorts, it allows all manner of song forms to follow, from the Nilsson-esque core of the entrancing “Verdugo Park,” which erupts at its midpoint with the spirit of a Van Dyke Parks-inspired burst of energy, to the upbeat, poppy “Seeing You in Stereo,” its flowing construction giving way to a lovely melody and a peppy Beach Boys-styled bridge with less than a minute left to go.
Because influence plays a large part in these proceedings, it’s no surprise that “Wake Up, Mary,” a song that had its world premiere on Pure Pop Radio this past July 28th, is a bouncy, clap along number that could sit comfortably alongside Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia.” Brandon’s song pits the yin against the yang, an honored pop music tradition: the song is about getting in the car and driving to greener pastures for a new start and growing the weary bones of a union that holds so much promise.
Crayons and Angels plays as if it were conceived as a complete work that’s best experienced in one sitting, played straight through for maximum effect. Which is not to say that mixing up the song order won’t yield similar results. Either way, this is an album full of beautiful, inspired, even spiritual work. It is magical and it is one of this year’s best records.
Something In the Water
Out Washington State way, there is something most certainly percolating in the H2O. How else to explain the creative strokes being struck by Scott McPherson, one-fourth of this year’s pop supergroup Pop 4, and Jayson Jarmon, flavorful songwriter at the helm of the tasty group, Vanilla.
Scott and Jayson weave in and out of each other’s projects; both are members of the group Liar’s Club, and Scott appears on the latest Vanilla record, along with Pop 4’s Kirk Adams. Andrea Perry, another member of Pop 4, is featured prominently on the series of delicious Prefab Sprout tributes that Scott has put out (a new one is in the works). And KC Bowman, pop music’s ultimate secret weapon, is a veteran of groups such as the Corner Laughers and Agony Aunts.(Deep breath!)
Pop 4’s debut album, Summer, proves that great talents, working together, create great art. It really should come as no surprise that talents of this caliber will ostensibly bring their A game to the recording table. In the case of Pop 4’s quartet of musical masters, that means melodies and harmonies and hooks exhibiting the highest of pedigrees. Every track is a delight; every single note is perfectly placed and sung.
Perhaps the track that points most broadly to this group’s strengths is the gorgeous, mid-tempo ballad “Don’t Be Like That,” a luscious mid-tempo song painted with a harmony-soaked brush and the sweetest, most seductive melody this side of a bear bottle full of honey. You could also point to tracks like the melodic “Lover’s Limbo,” possibly the finest song that XTC’s Andy Partridge never wrote, as representative of Summer’s treasures. Or you could put forth the ultra-catchy “Einstein and Sunshine,” which will more than ably satisfy the desires of Jeff Lynne fans until the next ELO album comes out (dig the fluid string arrangement and, well, the rest of it).
Since all of these songs are top-notch, you might think that it would be difficult to pick the album’s centerpiece, but it’s not hard at all. Scott’s waltz for the afflicted, “Tour for the Brokenhearted,” succeeds mightily if you just take the music and the arrangement into consideration. This track is the total package, the obvious star attraction. “Welcome to the tour for the world’s brokenhearted/Careful, watch your step/Have respect for the departed,” Scott sings. “String lay on the ground/The ties that bind to be found here/Duets turn into solos/For reasons we can’t know.”
Gee whiz, this song will break your heart. The awfully pretty melody–the sweet–plays beneath the sour, but the point of the lyric, at least as far as I can fathom, is that the brokenhearted will live their lives in a kind of tilted Möbius strip unless they are able to find their way out of the morass. In fact, the final words sung here hint at that possibility: “This concludes our tour through that door/Is where you started.” Beautifully sung by Scott and punctuated by tight bass stabs played by Andrea, “Tour for the Brokenhearted” is this year’s most emotional ballad and a truly great creation. As are all of the songs on this hall-of-fame record, a breath of fresh air in the second half of 2015’s summer season.
Vanilla’s second album, cleverly titled 2.0, comes nearly a full decade after the band’s first release. What exactly have Jayson Jarmon and company been doing since 2006? It doesn’t matter because, for 2.0, Jayson has sculpted 11 songs covering various subject matter, songs that are simply stuffed with imagination to spare. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you won’t want the Vanilla experience to end.
Where to start? Well, “Hold Me Like a Grudge” begins as a classically-styled, acoustic ballad and quickly morphs into a classic pop-rock number about a relationship gone horribly wrong. “The Angel of Swain’s Lane” is an old-fashioned folk song, beautifully arranged, about a lonely angel trying to break through to a lost soul. “The Angel of Swain’s Lane/Is crying out in vain/For someone departed/Forlorn, broken-hearted/A figure of pity and pain…/The Angel is crying again.” It’s a spectacular series of images, and a wonderful song.
Elsewhere, the subject matter is decidedly more lighthearted. In fact, in two songs paired one after the other, monkeys figure prominently. Yes, monkeys. Well, more so in one song than the other. In the sprightly jump of a tune, “South Tacoma Way,” a favored locale of Jayson’s is celebrated: According to the author, the song is “A 1930s period piece celebrating the virtues of my hometown’s most, eh, remarkable street. It features coffee pot-shaped buildings, a legendary lowland gorilla, seedy watering holes, and a glimpse into that area’s special indomitable spirit.”
In other words, monkeys, who pretty much dominate the outlandish, hysterical happenings recounted in the off-the-charts, wild and wacky and totally hysterical “Monkeypox!” With tongue planted so firmly in cheek it would take a pair of cranes operated by Superman to pull it out, the song is the musical equivalent of the old joke about the guy who goes to the doctor and says “Doc, it hurts when I go like that,” and the doctor tells him not to go like that.
“Monkeypox!” puts forth a be-careful-what-you-wish-for kind of scenario, where there’s always something worse behind the curtain, although that may be okay. “My baby wanted cancer/She smiled when she heard the Doctor’s answer/Monkeypox, she’s got Monkeypox…,” goes one verse. “My baby wanted SARS/Just like one of your Hollywood stars/Monkeypox, she’s got Monkeypox…,” goes another. “Monkeypox, she’s got monkeypox/And she feels…fine,” goes still another, which feeds into a familiar Beatles riff, and so it goes in the story of the dreaded Monkeypox.
2.0 closes out with a spirited cover of the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” in which the electric guitars are ramped up just a bit, and a radio edit of “Hold Me Like a Grudge,” which makes the song safe for the kiddies who might be listening to Pure Pop Radio (argh, those dreaded curse words!).
Jayson, along with multi-instrumentalist Sean Gaffney, drummer Dana Sims, and a host of guest vocalists and players, has turned in a spectacular show with this album, which gathers together tracks released in the neighborhood of once a month on Vanilla’s Bandcamp page. All gathered up in album form, 2.0 is a marvel, full of imagination and wit. Bravo.
It’s a (Collective) Beautiful Noise
This has been a great year for melodic pop music so far, and with five months left to go before the ball drops on New Years Eve, it’s not unlikely that the riches will keep on coming. Which is good for you and me and you too. For now, though, Brandon Schott, Pop 4 and Vanilla are tops of the pops. All of the tracks from all three of their albums are now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio. All three albums come highly recommended. All three will put a big smile on your face. And all three make some beautiful noise.
Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: From Brandon Schott’s Crayons and Angels: “Dandelion,” “Henry,” “Verdugo Park,” “Cerulean Seas,” “Pacific Blue,” “Every Little Song,” “Riot Act,” “Better Version of Me,” “Slow Down,” “Sunglow,” “Seeing You in Stereo,” “Dear Daisy,” “Wake Up, Mary,” “Wisteria,” “The 19th Floor,” “Dandelion Rain,” “Verdugo Park (Part II),” and “Sweet Adolyne.”
Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: From Pop 4’s Summer: “Beautiful,” “Blow Wind Blow,” “Einstein and Sunshine,” “What’s It Gonna Be Like,” “Don’t You Be Like That,” “Jaded,” “I’m So Jealous,” “Miserably Pursuing Happiness,” “Juliane Irish,” “Straight to My Head,” “You’re No Aimee Mann,” “Lover’s Limbo,” “You Love Me,” “Tour for the Brokenhearted,” and “Dust.”
Now playing in rotation on Pure Pop Radio: From Vanilla’s 2.0: “Victim of the Rhyme,” “Hai Karate Girls,” “Perfect Year,” “Alcoholiday,” “The Curtain Coming Down,” “The Angel of Swain’s Lane,” “Twilight,” “Hold Me Like a Grudge,” “Monkeypox!,” “South Tacoma Way,” “Catherine the Grating,” “Go All the Way,” and “Hold Me Like a Grudge (radio edit)”
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