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…

“Wednesday Morning” (America Cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome to your Thursday night edition of the Laptop Sessions with me, Jim Fusco!

To quote Jeff, “The only thing the same about the site is the background’s still gray.”  That describes the work I’ve been doing over the past couple of days.  You’ll notice the new navigation on the top of the homepage, the smaller text in the upper left hand corner, and the left sidebar rearranged.  The best part of all this is the release of the The Laptop Sessions free mp3 download series.  We tried doing it once before, but it was a LOT of work.  Okay, so it’s not as fancy now, but you still get 20 great cover songs in mp3 format as a completely and absolutely FREE download!  You have nothing to lose and a whole lot of music to gain.  I sound like an Oreck XL commercial…

We have 7, yes 7, Volumes released already.  We’re going to do them by Sessions member.  Meaning that a whole volume will be dedicated to 20 of my cover songs in order and the same with Chris, Jeff, and Mike.  Original Wednesday Volumes will be released, as well, and we’ll also come out with a holiday songs version at the end of the year- my favorite kind of music!

So, we already have 140 free mp3s for you to download so you can bring the Laptop Sessions cover songs with you wherever you will go (to quote the Calling)!

Also, you might have noticed that you can leave comments MUCH easier now- you don’t need to register or login to leave a comment for us!  We’d LOVE to read your comments and reply- we’re trying to build a community of Laptop Sessions lovers here that come back on a daily basis to see what’s new.  We hope you’ll be part of that community!

Okay, on to tonight’s video:

“Wednesday Morning” is a great tune written by Gerry Beckley off of the America album, “Human Nature”.  This is one of my favorite albums from them (probably second to “Homecoming”, which is on my list of best albums of all time).  Their new album, “Here and Now”, is great, too, as is their Christmas LP, “Holiday Harmony”.  Noticing all of these albums start with the letter “H”?  Well, about 90% of their albums do!

I love the songwriting of Gerry Beckley.  I’ve gotten to meet him on MULTIPLE occasions after shows.  He even threw me his guitar pick once during a show!  It’s funny that I actually got into America after listening to “Becky, Lamm, and Wilson” for Carl Wilson’s songs.  I knew about Chicago (with Lamm), but didn’t know much about Beckley.  I bought their “Best of” CD and never looked back.  I have every album I could find from them on CD and many on records, too.

“Human Nature” has a TON of classic songs on it, but the catchiest to me was always “Wednesday Morning”.  This album came out shortly after Carl Wilson’s death, and after hearing the “Beckley, Lamm, and Wilson” stuff, I was hurting for new, non-Christmas, material for a long, long time, especially because “Human Nature” was so good.

I hope you enjoy tonight’s Session- my first in the great outdoors!  The next five are also outside, so I hope you get used to it!  It’s been beautiful weather here lately, and at this point, I’ll take ANY excuse to get away from Chris playing off-key renditions (on purpose to annoy me) of “Who Needs Sleep” and “The Hurricane” all night…



“You and Your Heart” (Jack Johnson Cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Hello everyone and welcome to another new edition of the Laptop Sessions with Jim Fusco!  Glad to be back for my regularly-scheduled Thursday timeslot.  Remember- check back every two weeks for a brand-new video!

I went into a bit of a Jack Johnson phase recently because I ordered his new album, “To the Sea” on vinyl.  I was home cleaning or working one Saturday morning and decided to fire-up the record player.  I instantly liked the album and decided to add it to my car rotation.  However, I still hadn’t listened to Johnson’s previous album, “Sleep Through the Static”, from a couple of years ago.  I even bought it on the first day it came out, but was in another phase at the time (can’t remember what band).  My brother Mike didn’t give “Sleep Through the Static” great reviews, so I thought others should come first.  And there the album sat.  First at the condo, then in my car, and finally in my new house.

So, I listened to “Sleep Through the Static”.  It’s not a bad album.  But, it’s not a great album, either.  I mean, the songs are fine- I really have yet to find a Jack Johnson song I don’t like.  But, and I’m being completely honest here, there’s not too many Jack Johnson songs I truly “LOVE”.  “Sitting, Waiting, Wishing” is probably the closest.  But, all of Johnson’s songs have that same vibe and are semi-simple, for the most part.  Now, if you know anything about my musical tastes, you’ll know that those two traits are things I like in music.  But, on “Sleep Through the Static”, the music is very low-key.  There’s a lot of slow songs and nothing too catchy.

But on “To The Sea”, you start with “You and Your Heart”, which (in my opinion) is the catchiest, most single-worthy song since “Upside Down” off of the Curious George soundtrack.  And since this isn’t a kids’ song, it should get a bit more respect.  Mike doesn’t like the way Johnson sings the verses to “You and Your Heart”, so I hope I did a “better” job with that. 🙂

The song, as I mentioned earlier, is pretty simple to play.  If I had accompaniment, I would’ve played the riff the whole way through, though it’s very difficult to do while singing lead.  I chose to do rhythm guitar for most of the song because it sounds better on a solo performance and helps me keep time better.  It took quite a few takes to get this one right- those fast-paced words during the verses are very tricky.  The first line starts with, “Watch you when you say what you…”  That’s three “you”s in the first seven words of the song!  But, Jack Johnson’s alliteration has always been his strong point, lyrically.

I hope you enjoy tonight’s video.  I’ve got the next three videos planned-out already and they’re sure to please.  A quick note on my musical ambitions: The new website is coming along nicely after a tedious start (coding!) and I’ve started creating a new Facebook page just for me and my music.  Also, please remember to follow me on Twitter @jimfuscomusic!  You’ll get up-to-the-minute news and will always be notified of new videos and blog posts.

I’ll be back sooner if I can get the new website done first, but if not, I’ll see you in two weeks.  For now, enjoy, “You and Your Heart”!



“All Things Must Pass” (George Harrison Cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Hello everyone and welcome to my first installment of “Title Track Week” here at The Laptop Sessions! Chris and Jeff have already put forth two strong efforts, so I had to follow suit. I have such a list of songs to add to the Sessions, but I can’t seem to sit myself down to do a few lately. Don’t have much choice come Friday!

Tonight, I bring you the title track of the most successful post-Beatles solo album from one of the group’s members: “All Things Must Pass”. This is a great album, of course, and expect to hear many songs from this one in the future.

This is a great song that has a very insightful message, especially considering that George is now passed. We actually played this song in tribute to him on one of our radio shows over at WCJM.com Free Internet Radio.

This video was done a bit differently- I used my new ZOOM H2 microphone, which is really awesome, to record the audio. It came out great, but unfortunately became kind of a big project because the H2 wouldn’t properly connect to my Macbook. I hoped to do all of my Sessions with this microphone from now on, but the Mac doesn’t give the option to use the internal camera’s video and the ZOOM’s audio. Of course, you know I’ll keep trying to find a solution…

I hope you enjoy today’s Session and come back to http://LaptopSessions.com tomorrow for another great “Original Wednesday” video from Chris Moore!