Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Music Review: Golden Bloom -- Fan the Flames

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These days it’s become far too easy for musicians to simply cite their influences since inevitably audiophiles and critics can uncover those just by listening to their work.

However, when musician Shawn Fogel, who plays every single instrument in his August 18 release under the band name Golden Bloom, was asked to offer an explanation and influence-laced play-by-play of his effort Fan the Flames, The Smiths and The Beatles received only the tiniest of shout-outs. No, instead of just dubbing a guitar hook Wilco inspired the way that nearly every critic has described Fan the Flames as sounding like that band during their Summerteeth era, Fogel’s artistic muses will definitely surprise.

Drawing upon inspiration discovered in everything from books such as Confessions of an Economic Hitman and The Perks of Being a Wallflower and DVDs including Network, and The Atomic Café, Fogel seems to absorb culture and politics like a sponge.

And while the rest of us may have wanted to simply shut off our televisions and seek solace in the comedic fake news he also enjoys via Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert over the state of society in the past few years, Fogel chose to sublimate his anger into a creative album that’s become one of the most hotly anticipated discs of the year, earning kudos from SPIN, The Observer, and more.

Taking a cue from Radiohead perhaps, Fan the Flames has been hitting the internet one site at a time with each given track landing at a different music site for fans to download for free. And with this clever strategy, interest has been building steadily in the “power pop” sounds of the man who records all by his lonesome but goes incognito as the faux group-sounding title Golden Bloom, playing live at club dates with a varying roster of impressive musicians. A veritable revolving door of artists who share the stage with Fogel so that no show is identical to the previous one — while the sound of the music may change ever so slightly with Tom Petty shout outs added in as you can witness here — the lyrics of his works remain the same.

Moving away from his previous tendency to use his own relationships for fodder in the overcrowded indie rock movement of lover’s lament tracks or confessional, introspective works, Fogel acknowledges the change in the content and finished result, describing the contents of Flames as coming “from a frustrated optimism, or an optimistic frustration.”

Again dealing in the topical Radiohead terrain of Hail to the Thief or even Green Day’s American Idiot, Fogel refocuses his energies to “what’s going on in our country and our planet,” by using music to release that frustration into optimism (or vice versa) in regards to former President George W. Bush and those who cheered on Sarah Palin at rallies.

Yet instead of cheap shots or one-line jabs, the lyrics of Flames are creatively articulated throughout and one may not even catch on to precisely what it is Fogel is referencing on the initial passive — driving in your car with the windows down — listen, given the musical framework of deceptively sunny sounding, infectious ditties that comprise the roughly thirty seven minute disc.

Of course, part of the reason you may not catch on right away is because — as has been the trend of late for both music and film — the independent offering is packaged without a booklet or insert that gives us the opportunity to relish in the written lyrics. For those, like this reviewer who is still fighting against the trend of dropping CD production in favor of simply digital downloads in the future, it’s a disappointment as the pleasure of a great booklet that lists the music credits, lyrics, contains photography or sketches is one of our last remaining tangible products that separates the concept of an album from simply a disc you burned from your iTunes download library.

Yet Fan the Flames wins you over with a danceable retro tune that kickstarts the album with the first track “E.H.M.” which I can only assume is a nod to Fogel’s admitted inspiration of author John Parkins’ nonfiction work Confessions of an Economic Hitman.

Beginning with a sort of eclectic Beach Boys like hook before the modern guitar riff cuts in along with Fogel’s voice which immediately gives you the source of all of Summerteeth Wilco comparisons, the song which was initially conceived as “a slow piano ballad” soon evolved after he discovered Perkins’ book. After realizing the work gave him the fuel for the lyrics to the song for which he’d only had composed the melody and chords, he explained to Medleyville’s Chris M. Junior that in retrospect the book not only “changed the way” the musician looked “at the world” but it could also jokingly be classified as “the first installment of the Golden Bloom ‘book of the month’ club!”

He follows up the opener with the most recognizable track off the new release — the instantly catchy “Doomsday Devices” which seems to have become the official first single with the production of an offbeat Bush era style music video inspired by his fascination with the 1982 documentary film The Atomic Café and its startling balance of humor and tragedy in chronicling the development of the atomic bomb.

Again it’s dressed up in the complex musicality of an upbeat Ben Folds like orchestration that serves as a counterpoint for his true satiric intention. In my eyes and without the knowledge of Atomic Café, it feels as though it’s delivered in a Kubrickian Dr. Strangelove spirit but one that musically takes a fare more subtle approach than Green Day did with “American Idiot” or “Holiday.”

Lyrically, Fogel acknowledges that it’s a change of pace wherein he uses first-person but sings as though he’s a character other than himself by critiquing “the Bush administration’s insertion of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ into the American lexicon,” by portraying the President of the United States in the video as he opens the track with “You think you see me/but it’s only what I’m willing to show/you think you understand me/but it’s only what I want you to know.”

Still, all politics aside and even if you completely miss that interpretation the first time around, what you’re left with is a great indie pop rock track that feels like an ideal summer song, if only the album had been released a bit earlier as it’s addicting enough for some serious radio play.

With the third, titular track of the album, Fogel chose to channel the frustration and “disconnect [he felt] with the human race” upon witnessing crowds cheering on Sarah Palin in a televised rally into an optimistic, activism minded tune that reminds us of the clichéd but true statement of not giving up. While the title is a conscious “jab” at book burners and those who’d ban literature (like Palin) with the line of “Don’t pretend you’re satisfied until you’ve placed the blame, ‘cause pages never burn unless you fan the flames,” the philosophy that underscores the piece is the truism that if you quit instead of trying, then “nothing ever comes out of this mess we’re in.”

Moving away from politics into a romantic ballad that begins like a folky Neil Young song crossed with the Americana fusion of Ryan Adams’ Gold and the dreamy nature of Guster with the 2002 penned semi-autobiographical “She Leaves Me Poetry” which recalls the end of a long relationship, with in-joke references about the things that bonded them such as Stephen Chbosky’s wondrous coming-of-age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower whose main character Charlie he relates to in the words.

Despite calling “The Fight at the End of the Tunnel” an all-out “fight song” which to Fogel was intended as “the musical equivalent of” Peter Finch’s famous “I’m as mad as hell” scene from Network, in the world of musical genres, it’s a pretty quiet fight song when placed next to those from metal or punk. Aside from employing the guitar to drive home the testosterone to the pop music listeners in the traditional Wilco like Golden Bloom way, it doesn’t have quite the impact that he aspired it would and ultimately marks a turn for the album which starts wearing thin at the halfway point. However, this being said “Fight” sounds infinitely better live (which you can see in YouTube footage here) and fortunately the disc’s bumpy second half boasts a few standouts.

These can be found via the familiar sounding Shins-lite “Dead Petals” which again references Bush and first showed up on Fogel’s 2007 EP One Day in the Desert before he became Golden Bloom, the pleasant, positive but predictable love song “If You Believe” and an uneven half-successfully ambitious attempt at paying homage to a Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band Beatles technique in “Theme for an Adventure at Sea.”

For a closer, he adds in a surprise minute-long rant aptly titled “Your Minute of Fame” which referenced the recent former Illinois Governor Blagojevich debacle that he’s hoping will appeal to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.

And although again politics were the “outside agitator” (to use a ‘60s phrase) which inspired a majority of the work, overall Fogel’s Golden Bloom manages to morph all of the madness of the previous years into multifaceted melodies.

Layering on all of his own instrumental work on the piano, bass guitar, keyboards, harmonica, drums, and tenor sax into rhythms you can dance to and lyrics which remind us that it’s okay not to completely understand how to process what we’ve been faced with as a nation either — in the end Fan the Flames is proof that sometimes the best process is through a process like music itself.

1) E.H.M
2) Doomsday Devices
3) Fan the Flames
4) She Leaves Me Poetry
5) The Flight at the End of the Tunnel
6) Dead Petals
7) If You Believe
8) The Mountainside Says
9) Theme for an Adventure at Sea
10) (Unlisted) Your Minute of Fame

Okay, I've Heard the Album. But what does it mean?

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