Wednesday, May 12, 2010
A Man and his Guitar - A Ripple Rundown of Recent Singer/Songwriters Featuring PJ Bond and A Minor Kingdom
PJ Bond- You Didn't Know I was Alphabetical
Riding the crest of some amazing singer-songwriters that we've reviewed here at the Ripple recently like Matt Pond and Cory Case, PJ Bond has crafted an album that literally defines the singer/songwriter genre. At times sassy and poppy, at others melancholic and sparse, You Didn't Know I was Alphabetical never fails to captivate and demonstrates a brilliant songsmith at the peak of his form.
PJ Bond, a New Jersey Native, has spent the majority of his days living out of his car, playing shows, crashing on couches and generally living the life of the true troubadour. Recorded sporadically in studios and various apartment bedrooms, Alphabetical is a stunning collection of songs each with a core-melting emotional resonance. Bond has the ability to make the mundane seem profound. To take the ordinary and make it emotionally resonating.
Alphabetical overflows with warmth and sincerity. It's a decidedly organic affair, graced with tones of acoustic guitar, the occasional slide, a gentle beat and a human heart. Bond throws a little bit of everything into the mix, from rustic, up tempo alt-country rockers to haunting, melancholy acoustic offerings and sweetly infectious indie numbers. Not since Cory Case's debut have I been this wrapped up in an album so seemingly simple, yet truthfully complex.
Bond has a straight-forward yet eloquent way with his lyrics, often finding that particular angle to make the lyric turn into a poem. On "You Too," the album's jaunty opener, Bond brings his own tone to a lyric of love. "I know I'll never be a fearless leader saving you/ and I think you know that too/ And I know I'll never sing the songs of love you want to hear/ but at least I sing for you." An honest, introspective glance at a man and his limitations, his failings, yet clear of his intent. That simple declaration touches me as a more honest and genuine statement of love than a thousand Lionel Richie ballads. The easy, repetitive nature of the verse bleeding into the chorus brings that song to life. A backyard porch letter of love, blowing through a summer sky.
"Stop Being Bad," reminds me of the best of Paul Westerberg in terms of tone and melody, compelling storytelling told simply, soberly, and never at a loss for a singable melody. "Skin and Bones," is haunting drug tale, sung to a person on the brink of death. Minor chord progressions and PJ's wavering tenor bring chills to my arms as the song proceeds. "And your corpse will be pristine/when they bury you indeed."
The album unfolds so casually it's deceptive. It flows so easy, it seems so relaxed, but that belies the assured confidence PJ has as a songwriter and performer. Stripped nearly naked on several tracks, PJ never falters, never hesitates to take us to his most tender humiliation "Well I know that I am barely scraping by/I can barely afford to pay my bills" (From "Grow your Smile Wide") and then twist that scenario on it's ear. An accomplished album, available on vinyl (white or blue). One I'll enjoy for years to come.
Buy here: Alphabetical
Minor Kingdom - My Back Will Bend
This is a strange review for me to write. Since our inception, Pope and I decided that our goal was to spread the word on all the great music that's getting missed, going unheard. With that as our goal, we wanted to create "ripples" and hope that maybe some of those ripples would turn into waves for the bands. You, oh fearless reader, are of course, the waverider.
With that mission firmly in mind, it's clear that most of our reviews are ravenously glowing. Some people have taken us to task for this, insinuating that we're unwilling to write a negative review, but they clearly can't wrap their feeble minds around the goal of the Ripple. How could we write a negative review about something we like? We write about what we like, get it?
Having said all that, I'm still left with Minor Kingdom's latest release, My Back Will Bend and I don't know quite what to do.
Minor Kingdom is a man, not a band, the stage name for Kristian Melom, a singer/songwriter from Minneapolis. And in true wandering minstrel fashion, his songs of loss and melancholy were recorded in various bedrooms, living rooms, and basements. I'm sure many couches were slept on as well, probably some quarters bummed and some laundry rooms utilized. Kristian's music is sparse and haunting, drenched in the melancholy of a Depression-era, post-dust bowl haze. Each song is like a dense country-gothic American painting, bereft of color; each scene washed in greys and dark ink washes. Occasionally, a hint of light peaks through, but the clouds are always soon to return.
So why is this review so difficult to write, you may ask? Mainly, because after 10 or so listens, I'm still totally unclear on how I feel about this album. Let's talk about my ambivalence first. While individually each song resonates strongly within its own claustrophobic cell of downhearted emptiness, as a whole, the album suffers from the relentless pace, or lack thereof. Each song crawls along at a whisper's tone, some barely reflecting a heartbeat at all. As such, for me, it's hard to get through the entire album in one listen without my mind wandering and my fingers tapping impatiently, waiting for that one big climax. That one moment of tension building and release. In a nutshell, the album is just too slow for me to get totally behind it.
Then why is My Back Will Bend appearing in the Ripple? Because there's something undeniably compelling going on here. It may not be in the album as a whole, but it's there, in the songs. In each individual song. And the more I play this album, the more it ingrains into my consciousness them more indispensable some of those songs become.
The lead-off title track simply doesn't do it for me. So slow in it's monotonous intent that I was tempted to dump the album right there. It wasn't a pretty sight, seeing me running around the room in a tizzy screaming for some speed metal or something with a pulse. But then before the funny men in the white coats caught me, "Choir of the Lillies" came on and my entire view changed. Sure, "Choir" still crawls along in a near-fugue state, starting with a spartanly strummed acoustic guitar and Kristian's haunting, near-whispered monotone voice. But then something happens. Haley Bonar's angelic harmonies join in, gently lifting the song to a place of real resonance. A sweeping, mournful cello floats by, underneath the harmonies, taking the song into some American Gothic den of despair. Gentle tones of electric guitar enter, hinting at a light just beyond the horizon. A healing in the distance. A fullness for the heart. Without a doubt, "Choir of the Lillies" is about as stark and moving a song as I've heard in a while. This song alone shows me that we're dealing with a man capable of creating something truly great.
"Brita's Song,"which follows is a touch lighter, but again too slow. There's no denying the craft here, but after the stunning revelation that was "Choir" I needed something new, something more dynamic. Fortunately, Kristian delivers again with the next cut, "Perfect." With the addition of some well-placed drums, a stark snare, and an ominous bass, a new energy emerges. The song slithers and slinks, like a snake coiling for the strike. From there the album continues in an alternating form between songs that are compelling or those that are simply too slow. In the end, there's nothing wrong with any individual track, in fact, individually each song can be emotionally riveting, but the sum of them all creates an album that's nearly moribund. Just begging for some CPR and some good mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Still, whenever I was about to give up on the album, I'd play "Choir of the Lillies" again, and once again I was enraptured. Kristian has talent, there's no doubt, and the skill to back it up. He just needs to vary the pace a bit, toss some life into his despondency. Then, he'll really have something.
In the meantime, I'll keep playing "Choir of the Lillies" and wait for Minor Kingdom's next album. It just may be the best album I've ever heard.
Buy here: My Back Will Bend
Buy here mp3 download: Choir of the Lilies (feat. Haley Bonar)