Texas-based songwriter Lucas Jack has made no bones about his desire to bring back the glory days of the piano-pop songwriter, whether that singer be Billy Joel or Elton John. But his attempt to reinvent that tradition, while maintaining the familiar beats listeners will have come to expect, does a surprisingly solid job expanding it as well.
Sun City, a concept album which follows a couple through their journey toward the American Dream, though the detours are numerous and their success rarely assured. These songs are often Joel’s Brenda and Eddie from “Scenes From An Italian Restaurant,” as they travel through the darker edges of modern suburban life. Midway through the album, “Hope” takes on a darker view of Joel’s “She’s Always A Woman,” in particular:
There’s a distance in her eyes
Every time she starts to lie
And she’s far away tonight
And she always offers hope
That she wraps around your throat
Like a hangman selling rope
The war is only words you never say
The score you keep just counting down the days
Keep singing with the chorus in the bar
To blacken out the dark
And keep on coming back just as you are
But it’s not just an exercise in cheap misogyny like Joel’s hit, taking cheap shots. The song illustrates the buying of time which takes place in a marriage collapsing despite everything both spouses try to do. Both sides want to keep things together, so she lies and he accepts the hope she provides, even as he lies by saying the marriage still has a chance and that he’s not strangling against the metaphorical noose. The song’s haunting tone echoes the futility both must feel in the situation, with little they can do but keep living lie after bitter lie.
We witness the same couple earlier in the album on “Paralyzed,” as the husband debates just walking away from everything, even though he knows he never will. Lyrically this is where Lucas Jack shines, laying everything on the line in brutally cutting prose as his piano echoes the hopeful tone which will obviously keep this man in the marriage past its breaking point.
Once a month with our t-shirts on
That’s how far our love has gone
Our friends all tell us we should both move on
But we’re tangled up too tight
We’re paralyzed in our separate ways
We’ve both got kids of our own these days
And they’re making it harder to walk away
But we’re both long gone inside
How’d we get so old at 35?
I don’t want to give you the perspective that this album is nothing but bitter pills to swallow, backed by sunny piano pop which belies the devastation within. Lucas Jack is a talented songwriter who echoes Billy Joel in his delivery as often as he does solo-era Ben Folds and (on “Don’t Get Carried Away” in particular) even a touch of contemporary Randy Newman. These are songs crafted from the ground up to focus on all angles of the song, and it makes for an album full of vignettes which each deserve to be single candidates.
“You Belong To The City Now” stands tall as the album’s best individual track, and it’s rightly been named as the album’s lead single. It opens with piano, bass and guitar as Jack’s vocals sing of “living it up until it’s way too late to live it down,” his characters’ first glimpse of the city life which, while it eventually will consume them, still holds an alluring aura. I was reminded immediately of “Bonfire of the Vanities,” the Tom Hanks character who thinks he’s the master of the universe, making loads of money so he can live what he thinks is the perfect life, but we know he’s just a few steps away from being destroyed by that lifestyle. On the fourteen songs which follow this introduction, these two characters will take a serious beating — by the end, will they still believe in that dream? Does that upward mobility to the middle class mean anything, or are we all struggling to get past the moments which in the end would really matter the most?
In the end, Sun City is a remarkably astute debut from a songwriter who has crafted a song suite which plays well from the first hit, building in intensity as we listen more and more, sifting through all the lyrical details. It’s like watching a film where we’ve known these characters in varied forms all our lives, so we’re invested in seeing that they come out in the end with at least a semblance of dignity. This is modern American life, and like the troubadours he so admires, Lucas Jack has potential here to have produced a contemporary pop classic. For fans of the genre, missing this album would be a misstep you don’t want to make.
For my readers as Christmas nears and the year comes to a close, I hope you’re all keeping warm and finding ways to relax and enjoy the spirit of the season. These songs have served me well for years, as pianist/composer Vienna Teng built her reputation in my eyes as this generation’s strongest, yet least heralded talent. I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I have.
THE LAST SNOWFALL
from Inland Territory
If this were the last snowfall
No more halos on evergreens
If this were my last glimpse of winter
What would these eyes see?
THE ATHEIST CHRISTMAS CAROL
from Warm Strangers (2004)
It’s the season of grace coming out of the void
A man is saved by a voice in the distance
It’s the season of possible miracle cluresWhere hope is currency and death is not the last unknown
Don’t forget … Don’t forget I love, I love, I love you
GREEN ISLAND SERENADE
from Warm Strangers (2004)
LULLABYE FOR A STORMY NIGHT
Someday you’ll know
That nature is so
The same rain that draws you near me
Falls on rivers and land
Forests and sand
Makes the beautiful world that you see
In the morning
If you enjoy your piano-based alternative with plenty of Fiona Apple meets Under The Pink-era Tori Amos, Sarah Fimm brings plenty to the table you’re sure to enjoy. “Everything Becomes Whole” has a self-destructive sense to it, as Fimm voices the frustration with the fear that the only way she’ll ever feel whole is through her own demise. She’s been recording under the radar for more than a decade, earning praise from Rolling Stone and Billboard, and though her songwriting still showcases a deep respect for the artists of the 90s, there’s also a deep vein of twisted confusion to this music. Hints that she’s equally influenced by the likes of Lisa Gerrard or Maynard James Keenan abound, making for a surprisingly varied listening experience.
Fimm’s upcoming EP Barn Sessions was recorded in upstate New York, and will be released in physical form on a wooden flash drive complete with videos and photos captured during the creative process. The EP features stripped-down versions of rock-oriented material from her last album, Near Infinite Possibility, along with covers from artists as varied as Neil Young and David Lynch. You can’t buy it until next week, but enjoy the video for “Everything Becomes Whole” below and let me know what you think. Is this something worthy of wider exposure?
Sunday Lane has warranted mention on Hear! Hear! before. Her EP Bring Me Sunshine was a breath of fresh air when I stumbled on it last summer, a piano-driven mashup of Colbie Caillat and Ingrid Michaelson which maintained enough alt-country flair to keep every song on the tip of your tongue long after you last listened. Clearly I’m not the only one to think so; One Tree Hill revived the album with their season premiere this year, which featured Sunday Lane’s music prominently enough to ignite a blowup of interest in this talented young songwriter.
But when, you might ask, are we going to get more than an EP? The wait, thankfully, is not a long one. Sunday Lane’s first full-length album, From Where You Are, releases to ITunes tomorrow, and from what I can gather from the two exclusive singles she’s graciously allowed us to share here at “Hear! Hear!” — see above, y’all! — the album is going to more than live up to the hype.
“Waiting For You” has to be the sentimental favorite. The song opens with just Lane’s stunning vocals and a bare-bones piano backdrop: “I gave you everything and truth is I’d do it all again,” she sings. “But you’ll never change for me …” The song builds magnificently, a full-blooded arrangement which more than supports Lane’s powerful vocals. The build at the chorus is so intense you’ll be singing along long before the song ends, and repeats will be mandatory. This is a single crying out for radio love.
But then there’s “A Little Too Young,” the bouncier pop nugget which shows the lighter side of Lane’s songwriting style. Even as the lyrics touch on love’s darker edges, the arrangement here keeps things sunny and bright, a singalong waiting to happen as the chorus builds: “I’m a little too young to feel this old,” she sings, backs by a chorus of “whoah oh whoah oh oh’s” and a wall of shimmering horns. This is summer in a bottle, and if the rest of the album keeps building on this momentum, From Where You Are is going to be the only place discerning music fans want to be in the coming weeks.
DOWNLOAD MP3: Sarah Miles – “Middle of Nowhere” (right click, “save as”)
If I could run a hundred miles
I’d still be so far from anywhere worthwhile
Now I see how hard it is to be alone
I can’t run a hundred miles
For those about to get your piano pop on, I salute you. And if you’re taking my advice, you’ll be playing “Middle of Nowhere,” a sunny pop nugget from Sarah Miles which fits perfectly into any lineup featuring the likes of Sarah Bareilles or Vanessa Carlton, with just enough rock to get your feet moving while the hooks dance between your ears and peer pressure you into repeating endlessly. If you dig that track, grab it for free via the link above, then give her other tracks a listen: “Never Ending Chase” and “Find My Way Home” are equally ear-catching, hinting strongly that this New York singer-songwriter’s’ music is destined to push as far from the middle of nowhere as possible.
This song, “Mimic,” makes me happy. The video I just found for it on YouTube makes me even happier. With a many-headed hydra of rumors being perpetuated by the songwriter himself about all the grand Merritt music we’ll be enjoying in 2012, it’s only fair to go back and listen to a few of his best songs, all off the magnificent Pixie and the Bear, a double album par excelence. (If I can’t count on new Merritt music for my 30th birthday, nothing beats a blast from the not-so-distant past!)
First, “Mimic,” then the rest, which prove Chris Merritt is the best indie artist you’re not hopelessly addicted to, but should be.
This piano breakdown is enough to make Ben Folds himself break down and demand a chance to break it down note by note. Hopelessly brain-dead music executives ripped Merritt for daring to write in 7/4 time. Fuck ‘em. It’s brilliant and will assuredly melt your face.
“Rapping and rhyming / singing and driving / leaving California / stop in Arizona / counting my money / isn’t even funny / staying with my cousin / and I’m gonna be a Mormon.” — best lyric ever. There’s a reason he’s known in some circles as the Mormon Ben Folds despite being an avowed athiest.
This video starts out like a public service announcement on divorce, domestic violence and anger management — then the music kicks in, and all is forgiven as the crunchy keyboards turn your brain inside out — in the best way possible.
Okay, seriously, still doubting that you should give this album a buy?
Year of the Album — #042
Sunday Lane – “Bring Me Sunshine EP” (2010, Independent)
“You can be careful and I’ll be the reckless one,” Sunday Lane sings on “Reckless One,” the closing number on her independently released debut EP Bring Me Sunshine. “I’ll get my heart broke, but someday I’ll find love.” Her vocals, sounding hard and brittle, of broken hearts and love lost, belie the forceful façade she portrays on the outside. It’s a raw, beautiful way to wrap up her recorded introduction to the world.
This EP showcases Lane’s Colbie Caillat meets Ingrid Michaelson sound in a solid way; these are pop songs at their core which shimmer because she smartly imbues the individual songs with flashes of her own individual personality. Her voice has a frequent tremble, a sense of vulnerability which accents these songs of hope, love and the intangible elements of love which we’ve all experienced. “I’ve forgotten how long it takes to make a bad thing good,” she sings on “How Long It Takes.” But I can assure you it won’t take long for this album to dig its way into your head.
This is piano driven pop which manages to rise above the fray, and she’s earned her fans on the road, building a career from the ground up, the way few do anymore in the world of pop music. If the quality of the songs on this EP are a sign of what she’s capable of producing, here’s hoping Sunday Lane gets to make a full album that showcases her songwriting talents to a wider audience.
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Her cover-mashup of “Baby” by Justin Bieber and “Bad Romance” by Lady Gaga is below. I think you’ll agree her voice raises those two songs to a new level, showcasing just how much she can do with just a few twists of a note:
Year of the Album — #027
Vanessa Carlton – “Rabbits on the Run” (2011, Razor & Tie)
“You’ve got a knife-throwing kind of love,” Vanessa Carlton sings on “London,” the third track off her fourth studio album Rabbits on The Run, which is due out June 21st on Razor & Tie. And it’s immediately clear on this album that Carlton’s not afraid to throw a few knives herself. Cutting to the bone, these ten razor-sharp diary entries bring Carlton right back to where she was on 2002’s Be Not Nobody.
In the ensuing nine years she has fallen by the wayside of the pop music world, wrongly relegated to the “one-hit wonder” label. But Vanessa Carlton is one of those songwriters who was never over-reliant on hooks to find success, and though three-year waits between albums have not been kind to her fanbase, those who have stuck around are going to be pleased with the result of the time taken to hone her craft. Though these songs, including single-candidate “Carousel,” don’t have the sound pop radio thrives on these days, as a whole the album plays well, Carlton’s music not sounding nearly as dated as one might expect.
As a result, Rabbits on the Run doesn’t have any real sense of immediacy, but that means the album’s less likely to live or die on first-week sales. There’s a sense that this is music meant to be savored, enjoyed in repeat listens as a full meal rather than just tantalizing single-serving appetizers. And Carlton has survived where her early ‘00s contemporaries have failed. Willing to write and record without guaranteed radio success to buoy her career, Vanessa Carlton has managed to bring the unexpected, while the likes of Anna Nalick still have yet to attempt a follow-up.
This isn’t music you’re going to hold up ten years from now and say “this is what makes pop music!” But Vanessa Carlton proves with Rabbits on the Run that, for a songwriter, what you need to do is make good music. If the music itself holds water, the rest takes care of itself. In this age of corporate radio and failing record labels, more artists could stand to take a lesson from that. And music fans willing to take a step off the beaten path should find plenty to enjoy about this album as well.
I’m always stumbling on great cover songs on the ‘net these days which deserve to be touted as much as the originals. A key example: Laura Jansen’s impressive piano rendition of Kings of Leon’s “Use Somebody” strips away the bombast of the original to showcase just how raw and blunt the lyrics really are. It’s a beautiful arrangement, and I’m not at all surprised there are 4.6 million people who have seen it.
Just got a copy of her forthcoming album Bells and will have a review up this week. Until then, enjoy the song below:
UPDATE: Just saw a link to a USA Today article which names “Single Girls” by Laura Janson as one of the ten most intriguing songs he’s heard this week. Right on!
I’m launching a new feature category today — “Artists To Watch.” I’ll use this category to highlight emerging artists who are getting noticed online or in the industry, but who have not yet had significant chart success.
The first artist I’d like to highlight is a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter who sounds like a cross between Sarah Bareilles and Anna Nalick. Jamie Lynn Noon has garnered notice from Billboard of late with their new “uncharted” chart, and though she’s got no immediate album release plans, “Second of a Spark” off her 2009 debut EP A Moment To Break is a solid slice of contemporary piano pop. Right now it’s only been viewed by 10,000 fans or so on YouTube, but it’s got the hook to catch on with top 40 radio. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a lot more from her, particularly if she embraces a slight tinge of country — songs like “Second of a Spark” have been crossover monsters in the past with the right marketing touch.