Can You Still Feel?
"Take a chance with me."
Those are the first words out of singer-songwriter Jason Falkner's mouth on his sophomore CD, a message delivered with a touch of vaudeville piano and a disembodied vocal that sounds like it could be coming from a dusty old Victrola.
After the first 23 seconds, Can You Still Feel? never again revisits this musical-hall setting, but Falkner makes his point nonetheless. He's basically letting the uninitiated know that he's not just another of the by-the-numbers pop pretenders who are currently mucking up the playing field.
Falkner's hardly a newcomer to the Poptopia crowd, having logged time with cult favorites Jellyfish and The Grays, and earning considerable acclaim for his 1996 solo debut, Author Unknown. It's with his new album, however, that he makes his most convincing case as a major pop auteur. With the help of Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, Falkner deftly pulls a Wallenda routine over the thin tightrope that separates anachronistic pop hacks from inspired tunesmiths.
Falkner knows the perils of pop classicism, because his former group Jellyfish was harshly maligned by critics for being a retro-psychedelic nostalgia act. It was an impression that was only strengthened by their Archies fashion sense.
Falkner is still entranced by catchy tunes, but he's learned how to make them feel like more than stylistic exercises. With Cars-like New Wave synths percolating under the surface, the bouncy "Holiday" sounds every bit the madcap getaway it describes. It also reveals Falkner to be a smart observer of modern neuroses, as the song's protagonist is told by his girlfriend: "I'm not impressed so easily/I think I think too much you see/I'd love the ability to simply let things go."
Equally infectious is "Author Unknown," a folky lament that turns into an explosive rocker about the futility of trying to peg your emotions with words. Here, as elsewhere, Falkner's voice is winsome and light but never wimpy, which allows him to bring a hard-nosed brio to tunes like the insistent "Honey."
Falkner doesn't hit bull's eyes with every number. A couple of the slower numbers drag a bit, and "All God's Creatures" is a fairly rote riff-heavy number (although it's salvaged by a sweeping piano-and-strings solo break). But the overall impression left by Can You Still Feel? is that the cockiness of Falkner's album-opening request is justified. You could do worse than to take a chance with this guy.
Never Say Goodbye
When Roky Erickson sings, "Don't drive yourself past living," he knows something we don't, and urges us to listen.
His fragile psyche damaged by psychedelic drugs while in the legendary mid-'60s acid-rock innovators the 13th Floor Elevators, Erickson sings like he's grappling to manage our world with newfound powers of omniscience. The singer-guitarist spent the years after the Elevators' 1968 demise (having scored only one hit with the jug-driven anthem "You're Gonna Miss Me") in and out of mental hospitals following an arrest for marijuana possession. Today, he survives in the care of family and friends while living in a roadside shack outside of Austin, Texas.
Erickson's solo career has been marred by bad business deals, unstable mental health and frequent bootlegging of his material, driving him by the mid-'80s to essentially quit recording and performing. The few recordings to surface since his retirement only add to the Erickson mystique of schizophrenic insight and innocence. The dusty and fragmented song sketches heard on Never Say Goodbye were captured on a portable recorder, mostly in 1971 (during his incarceration at Rusk State Hospital) and at home in 1974.
Erickson conveys a genuine childlike sensitivity on these previously unreleased, mostly unaccompanied acoustic recordings which predate the Texas singer's paranoid visions of aliens and demons that populate his later tunes. His rudimentary strums are endearing affirmations--unlike the bristling self-righteous indignation of most folk songs from the early '70s.
Although the 14 songs on this CD are of compromised fidelity, their sound is no less charming than early Guided by Voices recordings. Smudged by tape dropouts, but clear and evocative in its honesty, "Be and Bring Me Home" sets a warbling acoustic guitar tone beneath Erickson's boisterous wail, "Suddenly I may control/Take little things meaning big so's I'm not alone/Suddenly I'm not sick/Won't you be and bring me home?"
On "Think Of As One," a phantom acoustic guitar prances in the distance as Erickson implores us to comprehend his vision of oneness: "Your living is my music/Think of as ours/Think of as all." His earnest and naive declarations speak like a mind that knows us all.
(Sugar Free Records)
For her impressive debut CD, Chicago-based singer-songwriter Diane Izzo enlisted the production services of Brad Wood, who earned indie-rock renown for his work with Liz Phair. The connection is more than coincidental, because Izzo's One has some of the same freshness of conception that characterized Phair's groundbreaking 1993 album Exile in Guyville.
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Actually, Izzo doesn't sound much like the thin-timbred Phair. Izzo's voice is more powerful and spooky, a melodic variant on the Patti Smith/Thalia Zedek school of raspy desperation.
What Izzo does share with Phair is an assured eclecticism that allows her to glide from the electric finger-picking of "Everywhere" to the folky cynicism of "Faker" and on to the fiery rock of "Ground." On the latter song, she's either a more musicianly Smith or a less melodramatic PJ Harvey--elliptically poetic by nature, and determined to keep howling into the void until the void answers back.