(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, September 27, 2010

CD review - Alain Johannes, Spark (2010)

Albums can have a depth that goes beyond individual songs. Sometimes it comes from an underlying concept that ties the tunes together. Other times, it's the continuity and progression of musical elements that build a movement. On the surface, Spark falls into the concept album category, since it deals with Alain Johannes' loss of his musical and life partner, Natasha Schneider. But Spark is more compelling for its musical approach. Still, it's a bit counter intuitive because the album goes through wild mood swings from song to song. Rather than blunting its message or sabotaging its flow, these shifts create a roller coaster ride, where each song drags you into the next section.

Or maybe a better analogy is a great multi course meal. Each track balances the previous one and offers something new, as the album unfolds. The opener, Endless Eyes, starts off frenetically. Looped and layered guitars create a driving tension that the chorus can only slightly relieve. This ends with a small flourish, allowing the simple, retro sound of Return to You to cleanse the palate.

The courses continue: haunted (Speechless), reminiscent (Spider), barely controlled anxiety (Gentle Ghosts), and regret (Unfinished Plan). While each song contrasts, the order has been well crafted. Musically, Johannes shows a lot of depth as well. His vocals and rhythmic structure evoke Barenaked Ladies, but I can hear Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), and some of King Crimson's harmonic complexity.

Although Spark is of a piece, one track deserves special mention. Make Gods Jealous sounds like John Fahey drifting into an Indian raga sound. It's fast and exciting, with exotic harmonies. The extended instrumental introduction creates a hypnotic, expansive feel. The music is ecstatic, but the languid vocals are detached. The clash creates a tension to savor. This is one of my favorite songs of the year. Here's a live version.

Alain Johannes' musical career has tendrils that reach some very interesting corners. Early on, he played with Flea and Hillel Slovak before they became the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He started the indie rock band, Eleven, which led to playing with and producing Queens of the Stoneage. He's also worked with artists from Chris Cornell (Soundgarden) to Kelly Clarkson. More recently, he's toured with Them Crooked Vultures.

Spark is his solo debut. It reminds me of a complex metheglin (spiced honey wine), where a host of flavors clamor for attention while staying in balance.

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