Wednesday, November 29, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1693: John Moreland

I’m not on a great run right now, and this next record represents the fourth album out of the last five that will not survive to return to my collection, post-review.

In more positive news, I spent the earlier part of my evening watching a documentary on Ronnie James Dio, and was overwhelmed with my love for him. So while this next review may not inspire you, I encourage you to explore some of the work of the great Ronnie James Dio. Whether as part of Rainbow, Black Sabbath or under his own moniker, Dio was one of the all-time greats.

OK, on to the present reality…

Disc 1693 is…Birds in the Ceiling

Artist: John Moreland

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  According to the liner notes “art and design” is also by John Moreland which means we all know who to blame for whatever this is.

A collage of collared strips may strictly speaking be an art and design project, John, but that don’t make it good. Next time just put a picture or a drawing of oh, I don’t know, some birds in the ceiling, maybe? Everyone likes birds…

How I Came To Know It: I saw this in the stacks at the local record store earlier this year and immediately thought, “hey, a John Moreland album I somehow missed!” I love my other John Moreland albums, so I was pretty excited. So excited I bought this one without having heard a single song.

How It Stacks Up: I have five John Moreland albums, and this is #5. Distantly.

Rating: 2 stars

“Birds in the Ceiling” should instead be called “John Moreland discovers the mellotron.” That would be a better title, and a much more useful warning than anything Tipper Gore could have come up with, even at her censorious worst.

With that ominous lede in mind, let us turn our minds to what would make a seasoned devourer of music like myself scurry home with an unknown and unheard record so filled with hope.

Previous Moreland records inspired me and made my heart swell with poetic longing. His gravelly and hurt-locker vocals, and the layered, understated beauty of his acoustic guitar is the stuff of pure heartache. Anything resembling that experience was sure to land well, I reasoned.

Unfortunately, Moreland not only discovered the mellotron, he fell for it hard and without apology. He pairs that space organ sound with what the liner notes refer to as “sampling/sequencing” as though this were an instrument on par alongside that guitar mastery I mentioned earlier. Reader, it is not.

Remember that Leonard Cohen album he recorded while squirreled away at a monastery? It was called “Ten New Songs” and featured a whole lot of synthesizer as well. It isn’t one of my favourite Cohen records, but I still loved it (three stars back at Disc 1094 if you are interested). The thing about that record is despite some of the awkward and inorganic production, Cohen’s songwriting shines through.

Nothing can shine through the sequencing experimentation of songs like “Cheap Idols Dressed in Expensive Garbage”. It has the empty thump of a dance floor banger, without the bang, and Moreland’s guitar lick is sterile and lifeless, something I never thought I would write about a Moreland guitar lick. Also, the title’s image (and the song’s chief refrain) isn’t even a terribly interesting idea.

Or think about Springsteen’s “Tunnel of Love” (Disc 761). This record has some questionable production, but the incredible selection of songs shines through that muck like a white-hot beacon of truth and glory. On “Birds…” the closest Moreland comes to this feat is “Generational Dust.” The song has good bones, and although Moreland’s vocals are souped-out in the production, the hurt is still lurking there, if you know what to look for. It works to a point, but “Brilliant Disguise” it is not.

Near the end of the record, Moreland’s natural earthy talents begin to win through some of the arrangements and production. “Neon Middle June” has a lot of the same challenges of the rest of the record, but Moreland’s vocals here are some of the best on the album. And while lines like

“And what if who I am, is who I used to be
Darling, you know that’s the thought that paralyzes me”

…don’t hold the magic of some of his earlier records, they do capture some of the plain-language wisdom that makes his music so imminent and cathartic to listen to.

“Truth Be Told” is the tune where he lets that brilliant guitar of his rebirth itself, again near the end of the record. This song is the best at abandoning the bad ‘oomp oomp oomp’ sound of the organ/sequencer stuff. It is still there, but maybe Moreland’s fingers are getting tired by this point. Sadly, not tired enough, but the song has its moments and like Springsteen and Cohen, you can see past the Vaseline on the lens to the craggy beauty underneath. It is too little, too late, but it’s something.

I don’t expect my favourite artists to sit staid and happy in the sound I like them making best. I’m all for them exploring new styles and musical approaches. But at the end of the day, it is up to me whether I like where the journey takes them – as the listener I’m the other half of the experience. And much as I want it to be otherwise, this record made me want to go listen to earlier John Moreland records instead. So I’ll pass this one along to a happier home and do just that.

Best tracks: Neon Middle June, Truth Be Told

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