Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Album Review: James Wallace & The Naked Light - More Strange News From Another Star

Album Review: B+
At first glance, More Strange News From Another Star, folk singer-songwriter James Wallace’s debut with band The Naked Light, is an incomprehensible artifact, mainly because it hails from a time that does not exist. Looking at its baffling lyrics and its scope of references, it has one foot set in 1821 and the other in 2118. Even Wallace’s music is a far cry from the earnest campfire reveries we’ve come to associate with the genre of folk music, transparent about its mishmash nature and drawing from psychedelic, surf-rock, jazz and blues with gusto. As it turns out, though, the classification is justified in spirit if not in sound, as Wallace ties his work into timeless themes of disillusionment, love and the latent absurdity of life on planet Earth: in that regard, it’s an odd but refreshingly modern take on an old genre.

The primary benefit of tackling contemporary concerns from the viewpoint of folk music is that our attachment to the genre is often to struggles that, because they occurred in the past, we can afford to see from a distance. Wallace takes advantage of that connection, using his musical style to shift his focus from taking a side to showing how the issues of today are issues we’ve always faced and always will face. His brand of folk is an unusually quiet one, not prone to explosions of anthemia but rather focused on creating a candlelight experience, a place everybody can huddle around to find some refuge against the dark.

Folk is all about the everyday, what real people have to endure every day, and Wallace and the band excel at steeping profundity from seemingly mundane experiences. The lyrics of kickoff single “Colored Lights” are positively cryptic, able to be interpreted through the lenses of technological constraints, issues of intimacy, disassociation with society, and even drug usage (let’s face it, those glockenspiels tinkling in the background are suspiciously colorful). Yet the band wraps these thorny issues in warm horns and upbeat, bluesy rhythms, while Wallace's voice is gentle and fair-tempered, eschewing performance and opting for communication. Wallace is also a fan of gallows humor, as it turns out: “Do you remember when you kicked me down the stairs when I told you we could fly?” he inquires, in a voice that’s half chuckle and all suppressed pain. It’s clear the aim isn’t to cast judgments but to breathe humanity into the characters, and the lack of pretense shows.

Though Wallace’s aesthetic is rather comforting, More Strange News From Another Star’s musical references are often subtle pokes at the oppressiveness and unspoken atrocities of modern life. “Worse Things Have Happened” may be draped in beautifully lush instrumentation, but the chorus is carried by rousing gang vocals that evoke the struggles of laborers (the use of Chinese in the chorus takes on unsettling implications with that consideration in mind). Then there’s the haunting “Everything Past Mars,” a sardonically patriotic march with an incredibly gruesome story behind it involving a stray bullet and somebody’s ear. Even in the album’s closing, it defies an easy resolution, only plunging deeper into ambiguity: “Chopping Block” tells the story of a hospital patient waiting to die, and while the violin-led instrumentation is romantic, Daniel Down from Oak Hollow, Minnesota is anything but. Though More Strange News From Another Star is never an active outcry, the effect is the same. Once the heroes of Wallace’s folk tales become more than fictional cutouts, they can no longer be denied, and Wallace never stops reminding listeners of that inconvenient truth.

On the other hand, this is also an album about love, and Wallace doesn’t shy away from tapping into the emotional developments of our everyday lives. “To The River” is one example of how he ties personal stories into universal themes: one of the simplest tracks on the album, it gives Wallace plenty of breathing room to reflect on a trip to the river with a long-gone crush—and ruminate on the end of the world. “This summer, everyone’s been so mean,” he reveals in the song’s most personal moment, a throwaway detail that feels more true-to-life than any contrived confession ever could. “He’d Like To Hear It Once Again” touches on surf-rock with a shimmering synth hook and nimble rhythms, but mental anguish simmers between the lines: “These days you’re less than able to lift your head off the breakfast table / I scold you in the day, and pray for you while you sleep,” Wallace reflects, unable to approach or even express his concern. “Can you still hear my voice?” he asks in the song’s last verse. “Can you still dream out loud?”

Perhaps the closest thing to an answer Wallace offers can be found in one of his simplest stories. “The Wire (Reprise)” is a letter from parent to child, begging understanding and forgiveness for past shortcomings, but the immediate follow-up “Kicked Down The Road” doesn’t offer an inch of leeway, as its young narrator talks about running away from the confrontations he must inevitably face and makes only one promise: “I won’t fight forever, but I’ll fight with my life.” Tellingly, heads and tails are part of the same coin here (Wallace even superglues the titles together into one track). After all, he suggests, it’s the same old story for everyone, isn’t it? We grow up scratched, burnt, and kicked down the road. We carry those wounds with us as we try to forge a better path. Yes, the dirt never quite settles, the pavement is never quite smooth enough to walk on barefooted, and the road never quite reaches far enough for us to make it out of the wilderness. Still, Wallace points out, we fight anyway—with our lives if we must. On our little star, what news could be stranger than that?

Artist Website

Track Listing
1. This Wind’s Too Cold
2. Colored Lights
3. Worse Things Have Happened
4. To The River
5. He’d Like To Hear It Once Again
6. 4th Dimension or Living In Colorado
7. The Wire (Reprise): Kicked Down The Road
8. Everything Past Mars
9. The Coming (Shark’s Song)
10. Chopping Block

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