Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

Josh Caress vaults forward in his songwriting skill with Perestroika

October 20, 2010

My love of Josh Caress is extremely well documented on this site. Ever since Letting Go of a Dream, I have been in his musical thrall. I have liked some of his albums more than others, but I have eagerly awaited each of them.

Perestroika, his latest and maybe last solo album for a while (nooooo!), contains the seven best songs that Josh Caress has ever written. There is a slight issue with this (there are twelve songs on the disc), but that’s still an incredibly high percentage of powerful tunes.

While his rate of success is somewhat astonishing, his formula is not that surprising: Caress has taken the best parts out of each of his last four releases and made a cohesive sound. The dramatic, sweeping, romantic pop soundscapes of Letting Go of a Dream form the core of the tunes. The inventive, complicated, Sufjan-esque instrumentation of The Rockford Files layers on top of this, bringing a depth to Perestroika‘s songs not present anywhere else in his catalog. The distorted guitar oomph that first appeared on Wild Wild Love lends an Arcade Fire-esque bombast to the tunes. The insightful lyrics of Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure! cap off the entire experience, lending meaning to the moving musical proceedings.

Add in the mix the unique voice of Josh Caress, and you’ve got a distinct set of songs that ranks highly in my top albums of the year.

While Caress splits the album into two sides of six songs each, I find it easier to analyze the album is in three parts: tracks 1-4, 5-8, and 9-12.

Tracks 1-4 take the Jayhawks-style Alt-country of Wild Wild Love and replace the twang with an epic indie rock flair. Each tune is an anthem in their own right, and I mean that in the very best possible way.   In the opener and title track, he’s yelling “Perestroika! On! My! Mind!” as suitcases thump and bells ring. “Is That What You Want?” sees the pulsing guitar line making the song into an epic instead of the vocal line. “We Will Fight” features a choir yelling/singing its way through the whole song, culminating in the chorus: “We will fight! We will fight! But not with violence! We will fight! We will fight! We will fight to strengthen the things that we’ve made!”

The final song of the suite is “You Are the Light,” which sounds like a lost Joseph Arthur song on uppers. The chorus is a glorious singalong. It is a blissful cap to this set of tunes. There are literally no parts to complain about in these songs. They are nigh on perfect.

Tracks 5-8 are a bit of a headscratcher, as Caress takes a sharp turn into Radiohead sounds. There’s some Kid A electronic work (“Deconstruct”), some Hail to the Thief/In Rainbows-style rock (“Searching at the Edge of the Real Thing”), and more. They’re not bad at all; he appropriates their sound nicely. Even his vocals, which have always been a bit wavery and high, fit well in context.  They’re good tunes, but they make little sense in the context of the album, and they’re just not as good as tracks 9-12.

While it is somewhat disappointing that the middle of the album turns away from the formula he spends two-thirds of the album perfecting, there is an upside. Josh Caress has gotten better by testing out sounds before incorporating them fully into his songwriting. If considering the melancholy electronica and rock as a potential future inclusion to Caress’ sound, this becomes a less frustrating suite of songs. Imagining his current powerful sound with electronic underpinnings helps me get over the fact Perestroika would be an incredibly cohesive album if not for the middle.

The last third of the album returns to the sound that Caress established in the first third. While “Everything I Wasn’t Meant To Be” is probably the least engaging of the eight folk/indie tracks, “Pulling the Curtain Back” is one of my favorites. It grooves hard, has a great melody and includes a stylistic throwback to Letting Go of a Dream. But the cascading guitar riff doesn’t revisit the style near as much as “Prodigal Son,” which uses the heavy reverb that was the trademark of Letting Go. The very specific mood it creates (and recalls) makes the track one of my favorites.

The closer, “By the Light of the Lantern We Go,” is true to its name, as the track is a nearly eight-minute-long journey. From the glockenspiel at the beginning to the full-on roar that occurs at the end of the tune, Caress takes the listener through all of his styles, motifs and ideas in one symphonic burst. It is a fantastic way to cap off a brilliant album.

The lyrics of Perestroika are relentlessly optimistic in the first and third acts, which matches the sound neatly. They include some of the most poignant that Caress has penned, especially in  “Perestroika On My Mind” and “You Are The Light.” The middle third’s melancholy and conflicted verses match the sound. Again, the middle isn’t bad; it’s just not near as good as the rest.

If this review seems disjointed, it’s because I feel that way about Perestroika. If this had been an eight-song album, or if something else had happened in the middle, I would be hailing this as the album of the year. It’s still going to be in my top ten for sure: the songs are just that good. Heck, the first four tunes alone constitute the best EP of the year. It’s my favorite JC release since Josh Caress Goes on an Adventure, certainly.

Josh Caress is edging ever closer to his masterpiece, and Perestroika is an enormous step in that direction. Do yourself a favor and get this CD.

Oregon Donor challenges listeners artistically with A Pageant's End

February 7, 2010

I’m a really emotional person. As a result, I connect best with really emotional people, art and situations. I get really into music when I can tell an artist put full emotional weight into the work. But there are more types of music than just emotional purges (thank goodness), and I like a lot of those too. But it’s always the emotional ones that I come back to.

My bias toward emotional music (there, I admitted it) is why I’ve listened to the Oregon Donor‘s A Pageant’s End on and off for six months without ever reviewing it. While there is emotion in A Pageant’s End, there’s a strong rhythmic and technical aspect to the songs that puts me off. I recognize it as talented and enjoyed it aesthetically, but it doesn’t stick. Even now, I can remember a specific riff that was solid, but I have no idea which track it’s in.

But Oregon Donor is in good company in this problem. I prefer Muse to Radiohead, because once Kid A happened, Radiohead just seemed emotionally sterile to me (I still love The Bends and OK Computer). I prefer Rage Against the Machine to Primus, even though Primus is way more talented. This is not a problem with Oregon Donor. This is a personal issue.

I stated those previous bands to give you somewhat of a framework to contextualize Oregon Donor. A Pageant’s End isn’t post-hardcore, post-rock, emo, punk, or rock. It’s an album of music that pulls from all of those genres. It’s very technical music, as the bass and drums have incredibly complex parts, and the guitar lines occasionally exist more for their rhythmic power than their melodic power. If someone put a gun to my head and told me to categorize Oregon Donor, I’d gladly say “serious rock’n’roll.” They don’t write music to make people dance; if anything, they write music to make people think.

“What Good Hate Did” sticks out to me because it has the strongest melodies of the bunch and the most emotional content (“had you any pity, dear, you could have put a bullet in my head/you could have spared me this grief”). It’s also over seven minutes long, which always gets my attention. It’s an excellent tune, and one worthy of much praise. “Older” takes songwriting conventions and turns them on their head, pairing odd rhythms and moods with peculiar guitar riffs and ideas. “Morse Code” is nigh on a math-rock song (does anyone still play math-rock?), with its complicated, interlocking riffs and rhythms.

I should clarify that this isn’t a cold-hearted slab of notes and rhythms. There’s plenty of heart that comes through in the tunes. It’s just that Oregon Donor isn’t primarily looking to pull heartstrings or incite fury in traditional, simple ways. All of the emotions of a regular human being are channeled through A Pageant’s End; it just takes more thought, focus and concentrated listening than usual to discern and understand them. There’s no huge major chord crashing in, nor very many telegraphed emotive parts. Oregon Donor’s complex music makes for rewarding listening if one really pays attention and digs in. I haven’t been able to do that on a large scale, but I have become acquainted with “What Good Hate Did.”

So, there you have it. Should you pick up A Pageant’s End by Oregon Donor? If you like thoughtful, artistic rock, most definitely. But be warned. It’s not easy listening, and Oregon Donor didn’t intend it to be that way. Those who expend the effort will be rewarded, though. I can guarantee you that.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of instrumental music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.

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