REVIEW: Jonathan Wilson - "Fanfare"

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Jonathan Wilson - Fanfare
Record Label - Downtown Records
Release Date - October 15, 2013

If we needed a case for taking popular music -- rock, folk, pop -- and turning it into Baroque, orchestra-worthy, chamber music just as likely to found in a concert hall as in your 96 Ford Taurus, it'd be Jonathan Wilson. I first came upon Wilson in 2011 when engineering our year end lists and found his album Gentle Spirit to be a constant riser: every time I listened to the record, it crawled higher up on my list finally ending up as a top 20 pick. Gentle Spirit's slacker, jam-bandish orchestrations made Wilson seem like the logical outgrowth of a guy who spent his life listening to early 70s folk rock. Or, as one review snidely put it, like CSNY jamming with Pink Floyd. Wilson's gentle tenor, vaguely new age lyrics, and blacklight-ready cover art, did make him seem like refugee from another time. That was the beauty of the album -- a hold-over record remodeled for the digital age. Wilson's since made his mark as a producer, playing on and recording Father John Misty's latest and working with Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Glen Campbell, as the NC native, Wilson, has established his base where all those great sounds of the folk-rocking 70s emerged, out from Laurel Canyon. Wilson's homebase seems as much logistical as it does historical as he places himself as a sonic visionary taking up torches which have been dormant since Zappa in reconstituting a genuine LA sound.

On Fanfare, Wilson's latest, one of the first things to capture you, will no doubt be the production as the opener and title track, "Fanfare," as it rolls out of your speakers with the intensity and speed of an iceberg before cracking open in an orchestral swoon. It's here that the track's momentum seems to break as a gentle piano riff emerges out of thin air and Wilson's cracked tenor pleas: "Ooh, let me love you / It's all that I can do / Not to touch you / Ooh, I'm in love with you / Hearin' my piano / You're never too far / Hey, you make my heart beat faster / I just cannot believe / You come back again / I need to look into your eyes." And it's on that last movement that the timpani roll hits and the orchestration returns to full speed overwhelming Wilson as he sings: "Look at your lives floating by." I'll be damned if it isn't one of the most romantic moments I've heard in music in the last ten years.  What makes it work is Wilson's production the placement of sound and orchestration is immaculate both here and on the rest of the album. He has that rarest of skills for a producer -- knowing (and using) only what's necessary. Not one piece is out of place here and that's what makes the evocative quality of "Fanfare" so impressive. It's technically and emotively perfect.

The term "fanfare's" musical legacy is defined by it's rousing, brass-filled announcement of an important person. Typically used to announce royalty, Aaron Copland, that great musical populist of the early 20th century, wrote one of the most recognizable fanfares by dedicating it to the "common man." In Copland's conception, we all deserve fanfares no matter what our social station. Wilson seems to play on this commonality throughout Fanfare's composition. "I'm just another heart and set of eyes," he sings on "Cecil Taylor," a ballad of unrest.  But, there's little pedestrian on this album. "Cecil Taylor," for example, features David Crosby and the over the course of the entire album Wilson draws visits from Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, members of the Heartbreakers, and others. And yet, there's nothing that feel throwback on the record. Certainly there are touchstones, but Wilson, at times, seems to be trying to put together an entire universe of sounds in Fanfare. And, seems to be Wilson's answer to the challenge of the title--instead of a fanfare for an anonymous everyone, can there be a fanfare that works for everyone?

"Fazon" begins with a couple keyboard vamps and a free jazz sax solo before the bass rolls in with a kind of nod to Dennis Wilson's "Pacific Ocean Blues," "Fazon" becomes a spaced out funk track as Wilson wonders aloud "who's going to live in the cities underground?" while the chorus cuts a loose, languid melody before being interrupted by a squealing sax as the track reconstitutes itself on the other side. The structure of "Fazon" isn't atypical for the album. Wilson's songs are long -- the shortest clocks in at 4:10 and the longest at 7:19 -- and the album weighs in at almost an hour 20. And despite this duration, there never seems to be any moments of musical rest or directionless measures. "Dear Friend" and "Her Hair is Growing Long," which lead off the album, both take different tracks in their composition. "Dear Friend" lilts through it's verses before a successive hits bring in a looping 2 min plus guitar solo which drives the song to its dramatic conclusion complete with soaring organ. "Her Hair is Growing Long" seems to build with a swell from the bottom up as Wilson sings "And we dance / And the day goes on" percussion seems to bloom as the song's harmony overruns your speakers. Perhaps the best example of Wilson's genre bending musicology is "Future Vision," which takes on three distinct styles over its almost 6 minute run. First, there's the lulling slide guitar and timpani rattle as Wilson moves into a sentimental harmony. "Touching is the highest form," he sings after the crest of orchestration. A languid bass pulls us into an om-pah-pah section straight out of blue-eyed soul where a noodling guitar solo pulls the track into a piano chamber ballad with subtle orchestration underscoring the melody.

It's a style that's justifiably epic. While the first three tracks, with their orchestral maneuvers, have elaborated on the song's structure, Wilson grounds "Love to Love" and "Moses Pain" in more traditional folk textures. The mandolin on "Moses Pain" accents Wilson's high lonesome vocals while the piano hammers out Wilson's plea: "Keep on writin'." "Love to Love" is the one track which seems to follow a solid template with it's verse, chorus, verse structure. As these track suggest, there's a lot of sentiment through Wilson's work. Even at its most angry, as on "Cecil Taylor," Wilson is content to give the image rather than drive it home. And true to the expert production and orchestration, figures seem to emerge out of the song like shapes in a fog. Wilson's theme on Fanfare is one of creation. As the cover for his album suggests, that gap (from God's hand to Adam) is the space from which songs emerge. And the act of making music is what gives "Love to Love" its content: "So I brought with me these three here guitars / Yeah one for the cuts, two for the scars / Well I'm not the only one who rolled into town / Just to lay my burdens down."

Fanfare has arrived at an intriguing moment in music. Much of the hype over the past months have centered around CHVRCHES and Haim, both of which take their musical touchstones from the 80s, utilizing synths, earnest vocals, and electronic percussion to give their songs dimension and drive. Listening to these albums, I can't help but recall WLFY friend Bro. Stephen (who recently got a job at a winery.  Congrats, Scott!) bemoaning a few years ago that everything sounds like it was produced in the 80s. This year, it seems like this prognostication has come true as we seem to be overwhelmed by 1985 in 2013 as bands, who didn't grow up in the 80s, drawn on that era as inspiration. The problem with CHVRCHES and Haim, in my opinion, isn't only their mechanical production and (again, just my opinion) uninspiring albums, but is that there seems to be no attempt to progress musically. For those of you who follow the blog, you might have noticed that I took a similar track on my review for Cloud Nothings last album. For me, these albums are retro, and by that I mean retrograde -- they take us back instead of looking forward. So, what's the difference between the sound on Haim and CHVURCHES and Wilson, who also seems to cast an eye back as often as he looks forward? The answer is simple: ambition. Fanfare's majesty is the result of an impeccable eye for detail, first-rate production, and huge orchestrations grounded on pure sentiment. There's little that this album doesn't do right, and the sheer scope of it -- in an age where everyone seems to be "getting small," in the words of Steve Martin -- isn't just admirable, it's downright necessary. Fanfare is monumental music and music as a monument giving homage to the past and durable enough to push us forward.


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