Steven Page (with the Art of Time Ensemble)’s “A Singer Must Die” – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING:  3.5 / 5  stars

According to Wikipedia, A Singer Must Die falls under the “orchestrated pop” genre.  If that is accurate, then this is my first orchestrated pop purchase.

And it’s a good one.

Along with the Art of Time Ensemble, Steven Page arranged and performed ten covers — if you include the Barenaked Ladies’ “Running Out of Ink” — that run the emotional gamut and mark a departure from the instrumental sound we’ve come to associate with Steven Page, both as a member of BnL and as the main force behind the Vanity Project.  Here and there throughout his recorded career, there have been strings or horns, but this is the first major release on which he is backed almost entirely by the orchestration of an ensemble.

And yet, the overall tones, themes, and vocal textures are still very much the Steven Page we’ve come to know, particularly in the music he has written and performed this decade.  Page always seemed to be the more serious one in his often comedic BnL partnership with Ed Robertson — the “It’s All Been Done” to Robertson’s “One Week,” if you will.  Throughout this decade, though, Page’s preferences have swung even more to the extreme, considering the beautiful, heartbreaking ballads of Maroon (2000), the topical tracks like “Celebrity” and “War on Drugs” on Everything to Everyone (2003), and the sober “Bad Day” on the otherwise upbeat Snacktime! (2008).

In a sense, the conception of this project could be traced as far back as the 2007 Barenaked Ladies Are Men track “Running Out of Ink,” on which Page voiced the narrator’s social and personal downward spiral made all the more distressing by a loss of creative energy, the bag of of all he’s ever written being tossed off a bridge, bleeding ink, and sinking out of sight by the close of the song.

Now that Page has struck out on his own, the pressures described in that song must be an even more real force for him.  As a solo artist, he will either sink or swim as a result of his efforts alone, and that must be a frightening, if thrilling, experience after two decades in a five-piece band.

A Singer Must Die carries all the maturity and experience you would expect from an artist who has spent more time in the headlines than on record the past few years. The drug-related arrest.  The breakup.

Enough.

At last, Page is back on the top of his game, having released a record that relaxes and frets, breathes and pants for breath, escapes and runs head on into pain and sorrow — an excellent record.

Steven Page (with the Art of Time Ensemble)'s "A Singer Must Die" (2010)

Steven Page's "A Singer Must Die" (2010)

The piano and string-heavy “Lion’s Teeth” kicks off the album on a suspenseful note, tension building with every second that passes.  Page builds up to a near-scream as he sings, “And my arms get sore, and my palms start to sweat; and the tears roll down my face ’til my cheeks are hot and red and soaking wet…”

He goes on to sing, “There’s no good way to end this — anyone can see there’s just great big you and little old me.”

What a way to kick off his first individual effort following the break with BnL!

The greatest strength of A Singer Must Die is the arrangement of tracks.  The opener is followed by the initially calm and beautiful opening verses of Elvis Costello’s “I Want You.”  Fiona Apple set the bar high for cover versions of this track, and Page was up to the task, even if the middle to end of the song suffers from some self-indulgent orchestration.

Next comes a track that surprised me — I never knew I could enjoy a Rufus Wainright song.  Sounding like it came from an early twentieth century crooner’s repertoire, “Foolish Love” further advances the feeling expressed on “I Want You,” if from a different angle.

Thanks to the Art of Time Ensemble, “Running Out of Ink” is even more manic and frantic here than the original Barenaked Ladies version was, and this is saying something.  For me, this is the thematic centerpiece of the album, a song originally co-written by Page himself.  Throughout rock music history, the greatest songwriters have turned to covers when they were themselves “running out of ink.”

Thankfully, Page is not, as he has set the release date for his first solo album proper for later this year.

“A Singer Must Die” and “Taxi Ride” are excellent companion pieces, the former expressing the dangers of self-expression with fitting sarcasm and the latter expressing a bittersweet departure that includes near-hallucinations and the sad, pleading, distressed vocals that few can pull off so convincingly and expressively as Page can.

If “Taxi Ride” is the low point, emotionally speaking, of this record, then “Tonight We Fly” is just the pick-me-up that it needs.  This is a case of perfect lyrics, perfect performance, and perfect timing.

“Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure” is easily the most heartrending track on A Singer Must Die, and is an exemplary case of Page’s ability to translate a fairly straightforward indie rock track by the Weakerthans into an emotive, beautiful masterpiece.  If there is one track that makes me think of the sad (if not so shocking) news of Page’s departure from BnL last year, this is it.

“For We Are the King of the Buidoir” is, unsurprisingly, a wonderfully quirky song originally written and performed by the Magnetic Fields.  Again, timing is everything as Page’s spot-on rendition of this little gem is right where it needed to be, as a transition between the solemnity of “Virtute” and the frenzied madness of “Paranoid Android,” in and of itself a perfectly placed cover of the Radiohead classic.  After all, what better way to conclude a post-breakup solo album than with lines like “ambition makes you look pretty ugly, kicking and squealing” and “when I am king, you will be first against the wall with your opinion which is of no consequence at all”?

I will be the first in line for Steven Page’s first solo album of original material when it arrives later this year, but for now, A Singer Must Die has served to at least whet my appetite for new material from a man who is arguably one of the most talented singer/songwriters of the past two decades, alongside others like Ben Folds, Elliott Smith, Jakob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, and Jeff Tweedy who have shaped the sound of modern rock music.

If A Singer Must Die is a necessary transition effort before an entirely original release, then it is a promising one.  The choices here are excellent — both obscure and ambitious — and the performances are first rate.

In the end, though, a singer’s death may be compelling, but his imminent rebirth is all the more exciting…

The Other Half: A Look Back at Ten (Officially Released) Jim Fusco Rarities – PART TWO

By Chris Moore:

Last week, I brought you the first five in a list of ten Jim Fusco rarities in preparation for the release of his new album Halfway There this “new music Tuesday,” April 7th, 2009.  After all, there’s no better way to anticipate an upcoming release than to go back and enjoy all previous releases in a series.

In the case of Fusco, there has been quite a variety of musical projects over the course of the past eight years.  There have been six solo studio albums, three band albums, four releases (of 20 tracks each) in the Laptop Sessions acoustic mp3 series, a single, a greatest hits disc (with accompanying music video DVD compilation), and assorted demos, covers, and other tracks.  Now that I’ve officially finished listening to all the Bob Dylan tracks in my collection (almost 700!), I’ve embarked on my “Jim Fusco Catalog” playlist.

Clocking in at “only” eleven hours or so, this should be much easier to tackle than my Bob Dylan playlist!

For those of you Jim Fusco faithfuls, I hope you’ll enjoy the final five tracks on this second installment of “A Look Back at Ten (Officially Released) Jim Fusco Rarities” worth remembering…

A Look Back at Five More (Officially Released) Jim Fusco Rarities…

6)  “The Red, White, and Blues” – This is yet another album starter that I love.  It is Fusco’s first foray into direct protest songwriting.  Indeed, his March 2008 Laptop Sessions version stirred up some controversy in the form of comments left on the site.  It was nice to see that at least some people listen to the lyrics, even if they misread and/or disagreed with their message.  As he wrote in the blog post, this was the first and last “protest” type song of its kind.

7)  “The Second Time” – All I have to say is: this better be at the wedding reception!  In 2003, Jim recorded and released Formula, an album whose material was clearly inspired by his now-fiance Becky Daly.  She joins him near the end of this track, offering up a preview of 2/3 of the Chris, Jim, and Becky trio that would go on to perform around the state and release a “live in the studio” album.  While this isn’t necessarily one of my favorite Jim Fusco songs, it’s always been one of my favorites from Formula and — if it’s not “best of” material, then — it’s “top ten rarities” material.

8)  “Sideshow” – There are so many different tracks that were up for inclusion on this list of rarities — there’s the simple, piano-based vulnerability of “My Angel” or the folky storytelling style of “Vision of Cobblestone Town,” to name just a couple.  “Sideshow” earns a spot in the top ten for its unique sound.  There’s something about this track that is controlled and yet sort of wild; it’s one of those songs whose sound truly meshes with and contributes to the meaning conveyed by the lyrics.  In addition, as the penultimate track on What About Today?, it’s truly the point at which the recurring instrumental section comes to a climax before the first chords of “Harmony” and the close of this concept album.

9)  “Never Taking Your Chances” – This is one of those songs that benefits from my memories surrounding its conception, recording, and release.  I vividly recall my conversations with Jim about the situation that resulted in the writing of this song, and I recall the then-groundbreaking recording methods that he was pioneering.  This is a clear example of early blending between vocals and distortion guitar.  With each album, Jim’s use of guitar effects has become more effective and more interesting, and I can’t wait to hear his latest leap forward on Halfway There.

10)  “Another Backwards Day” – Speaking of guitar effects, “Another Backwards Day” is a track that I always felt was left forgotten about, sandwiched between the live favorites “Can’t Count on Words” and “Sometimes.”  This song is every bit as upbeat and rocking as the other songs around it, and it boasts a Frampton-esque series of guitar solos and riffing.  If “She Waits” (another favorite and one that ALMOST made the list!) demonstrates Jim’s softer, piano-driven side, then “Another Backwards Day” pulls out the stops and allows him to flex his electric muscle.

“Solitaire” by Wilco – Chords, Tabs, & How to Play

For the acoustic cover song music video, CLICK HERE!

“Solitaire”
Wilco

(Capo I)

Intro:   E    F#m7    E    F#m7    E

E
Once I thought the world was crazy,
F#m7
Everyone was sad and chasing
Happiness and love and
I was the only one above it.

Once I thought, without a doubt,
I had it all figured out.
Universe with hands unseen;
I was cold as gasoline.

E      G               F#m7
Took too long to see
F#m7   C               F#m7              E              F#m7    E    F#m7    E
I was   wrong to believe in me only…

Once my life was a game so unfair
It beat me down and kept me there.
Unaware of my naysaying,
F#m7                                              E
Solitaire was all I was playing.

INSTRUMENTAL:   G    F#m7    C    F#m7  (x3)

Took too long to see
I was wrong to believe in me only…

** These chords and lyrics are interpretations and transcriptions, respectively, and are the sole property of the copyright holder(s). They are posted on this website free of charge for no profit for the purpose of study and commentary, as allowed for under the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law, and should only be used for such personal and/or academic work. **

“For Real” (Indie Music by Songwriter Jim Fusco)

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome to yet another “Original Wednesday” Session here with me, Jim Fusco!

This one kinda crept up on me today, and for the second time, Chris and I tried to do “The Game” off of my band MoU’s new album, “Homestead’s Revenge”. But, again, my voice wouldn’t hold out—for my own song! It’s been like this for about a month now and I don’t know how to make it better.

So, I reached way back into Jim Fusco lore to get this song off of my album, “Formula” from early 2003. You can listen to the entire album and purchase it here: http://fusco-moore.com/music/jim/albums/formula.php I tell ya, it sure seems like a lot longer ago than that- a lot has happened in only five years. I expect a whole lot more is coming in the next five years, as well.

I always remember my father pointing out that this was a good song- something about it caught his ear and I took note of his reaction.

I changed one line just for curiosity’s sake. If you’re an official Jim Fusco fan (no, not you Jeff, Chris, or Becky), then you’ll know which one. and if someone other than those three asks me, I will be happy to answer why I changed it for this version.

From an otherwise “okay” album that I don’t think has worn too well over five years, this song has always been a standout track for me, and I hope you agree.

Make sure to stay tuned as the Session a Day rolls on here in 2008!