Off the Beaten Track: Music Reviews and Musings by Mary Leary

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As the reviewer tries to get behind another “Indie” (smaller) label, a barely legal Swede saves the day

Cleeman: 45 Minutes Mostly About Caring

Cajita: The Ellipsis

Chuck Morgan: Patchworks

Television Keeps Us Apart: A Slight Change of Light

I recently became aware of Series Two Records, an ambitious Nebraska-based label proving that anything can happen anywhere. Anything doesn’t just happen in the American hinterlands, relatively speaking, either.

I can imagine the delight of musicians at hearing they’ve being signed to Series Two, which, per one of  its web pages, is “…releasing some of the best Swedish Indie pop bands as well as music from USA, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Costa Rica, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, United Kingdom, Taiwan, Japan, China, Australia, Indonesia, Thailand, Croatia, New Zealand, Latvia, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Poland, Russia, France, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Finland, Brazil, Singapore, and Israel.”

It’s pretty exciting to open a mailer of CDs and what the Brits call “badges” (pins) from Christopher, founder of the label and the Nebraska Pop Festival. After my first hour of listening, annoyance has replaced enthusiasm. I mean, I’m glad the label is giving people reasons to get up in the morning. Unfortunately, the first half of this listening experience doesn’t affect me similarly. Based on two of the CDs, I start to think maybe Christopher is on some sort of wonder drug that makes everything sound nice, like soma in Brave New World.

Cleeman's Bangin' CD Cover

Cleeman's Bangin' CD Cover

I’m wishing someone would give some of that to Cleeman, a Dane whose amusing CD cover implied something exciting. Although his depressing, vibrato-laden dirges lead to more drowsiness than annoyance, I can see how repeated listens could mean a massive sleeping pill acquisition. Who knew anything might make me miss Al Stewart or Christopher Cross? While this doesn’t, it makes me miss how when I hear either of those on the radio the experience is bound to end in three minutes or less.

UK-based, Cajita does a decent job of the sort of electronic emo that spread like cancer in the mid ‘80s, with a bit of solo Morrissey-ish bathos. I’m glad that part of the ‘80s is over. I’ll never forget my chagrin at moving to NYC just in time for the best of the new wave to be over, a murky white-people-music period when disco, synth-pop and post-wave poseurs (Boy George really did exist) ruled far too many clubs and jukeboxes. One of the most depressing nights of my life was at some bar in the East Village; the music was so dreadful that “Everybody Wants to Rule the World” became a high point, dimly punctuated by the vomiting of a NYU frat boy.

Live, Cajita is sometimes backed by visuals, making its presentation even more sleepily hypnotic. Still, one can applaud the knob-turners’ glee, which once upon a time informed David Bowie’s Eno-collaborative output – which makes me want to watch this video of a track from Heroes.

I’m losing faith in Series Two and annoyed that the last two CDs do nothing on my main player, meaning I’ll have to listen to Chuck Morgan (a/k/a Anton Ekman, a Swede in Gothenberg) through midget speakers. Characteristic of Ekman’s occasional awkwardness with English is the title of the opener, “It Is About Time,” which eases in cool as the watery guitar of Danny Kirwan circa Bare Trees or Future Games – a good but not great thing, as the melody isn’t up to the song writing on either. But when the compellingly moody progression driving “Please Take The Train” takes hold, I stop thinking about all the other things I’d rather be doing. Sure, it sounds a bit like Broken Social Scene or Mice Parade. MP helped save a really bleak July for me with the kind of sublime abstraction I may never tire of.

Throughout this debut, almost everything which has affected Ekman is employed in a “renewable resource” kind of way. The occasional oddities dotting Ekman’s English also allow for spots of brilliance. And my restless ears are riveted by an array of evocative, humorous or simply unexpected sound effects so effective, I remember my first experience of Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (I’d just been fed hash brownies at a pool party in Spain overlooking the Bay of Fuentebravia, and was listening through good headphones).

Re: Patchwork‘s two or three near-missteps, here’s a relatively unqualified statement: Swedes shouldn’t rap. As it’s a major influence (along with Speaking In Tongues-era David Byrne), Ekman does: On “Big Pink Can’t Sleep,” awkward early stanzas are saved by emotive momentum and an infectious refrain. Similarly, “Perdido” is rescued by a rather original storyline.

Patchworks is something pretty unusual now that everyone’s heard everything (even if they haven’t had the original historically/culturally-related experiences). First, Ekman grasps the essence of whatever’s found its way into his psyche. Secondly and more rarely, he’s meshed it into more than the sum of its parts. So 11 songs penned between the ages of 15 and 19, often addressing the well-trodden joys and miseries of adolescence, add up to the kind of gem that puts pressure on the artist.

It’s hard for me to imagine how 20-year-old Ekman is going to top this mix of inventiveness, melodic ingenuity, and intuitive collaborators (on sax, clarinet, beat box, bass, and production mastering). I hope any future release will at least retain Ekman’s elegantly restrained aesthetic.

Especially noteworthy are a few cuts that blossom into some of the most gorgeous pop I’ve heard in some time. The touching “Talent For Luck” glows with confessional courage and tasty acoustic fingering. “Our Future Could Be So Bright” reminds me a bit of Todd Rundgren and of the Beach Boys circa Surf’s Up. At the heart of the album is the wistfully enchanting “This Spring Is.”

Chuck Morgan – This spring is

I haven’t heard this much such sublime Scandinavian melancholy since the version of “Carnival” where Peter Svensson takes the lead, solo vocal. Although the rather difficult, edgy “Smells and Colors” follows, the transition is skillful, and by now I’ve gotten it that this album is just that: worth acquiring for the experience of listening to the tracks together, in the intended order. It’s the most extraordinary listening experience I’ve had since discovering Micachu.

Of course, anyone who’s followed my reviews knows I tend to like sounds that hold my interest, which includes some pretty trippy stuff. I imagine there are those who would disagree with some of my picks. I don’t know whether to feel sorry for them or study them under microscopes. I do know that after listening to this for a couple of days, I have a problem: How to get myself to play anything else.

However, there’s one more Series Two-ster to consider, a Swedish duo with an intriguing name: Television Keeps Us Apart. I hate TVUA’s ponderous organ sounds and vaguely trip-hop electronics, some of which sound just plain ugly, so much I can’t even listen to the whole thing.

But thar’s gold in them thar Nebraska hills. While Series Two’s approach seems a bit hit-and-miss, a little miracle happened when Christopher signed Chuck Morgan. In any case, the treasure hunt of listening to everything I could get my hands on from an early age has always impelled me.  So maybe if Christopher isn’t too upset after reading this I’ll see if he wants to send four more CDs.

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