RATING: 4 / 5 stars
By Chris Moore:
Many who listen to What About Today? may miss the apparent tip of the hat to Nashville Skyline—Bob Dylan’s 1969 album—that is implied on the cover.
This is perhaps not a necessary reference to understand anyway, as Jim Fusco’s progression as an artist is in an entirely different place now than Dylan’s was when he released his first country-rock album. No, Jim Fusco is redefining his own style with this album, moving ahead with increasing complexity and depth, while Dylan was attacked over three decades ago by critics and fans alike who were disappointed by the simplicity of his then-latest release of sappy, romantic songs.
The allusion on the cover may be an indication of Fusco’s personal predilection for songs of this nature. What About Today?, however, is certainly anything but a collection of disappointingly simple love songs.
This album has been related to the landmark Brian Wilson masterpiece SMiLE by Fusco himself in the liner notes contained in the enhanced CD section. The most obvious comparison between these two works is in their unified composition, each track blending seamlessly into the next. As Fusco described, the ending chord of every song on his album matches exactly to the initial chord of the subsequent song.
The truth is that this method works well and places What About Today? a notch up from most contemporary rock albums into that somewhat forgotten realm of the concept album. Fusco demonstrates that an album can be more than a random assortment of the newest songs from an artist. Moreover, he has transcended the realm of the strictly chronological concept album—consider his earlier album My Other Half (2002) which follows the progression and breakdown of a relationship.
The one element of this album that cannot be described as more complex than any of his previous ones is notably the vocals. In the past, Fusco relied on vocal harmonies and combinations to define his music, and indeed they have always set him apart in an exceptional way. Honestly, I initially wondered whether this should be considered a downfall, a failure of the new album. After all, he completed the album in such a brief time—three weeks—so could he have rushed past the vocals? Upon many subsequent listenings, I have arrived at the opposite conclusion.
The majority of the background vocals on this album are subtler and more understated than in his earlier work. Yet that is not to say that they are any less well-thought-out or vital to the songs they support. I do not think that the background vocals are as prominent on this album, but I believe the album would be at a profound loss without them. At the risk of seeming like every other critic who has ever written about a particular artist over an extended period of time, Fusco sounds mature on this album. He does not demonstrate a perceived need to impress the audience with his vocal feats. Rather, perhaps for the first time, he is focusing on the unique voice that is Jim Fusco. He is concentrating on his command of delivering his lyrics, singing them with authority. He is also showcasing his abilities and techniques as a lead electric guitarist—a defining sound on this album and a theme suggested by the presence of his shiny red, classically designed guitar on the back page of the CD booklet.
If one could hear the thinly-veiled songs about his girlfriend, his childhood heroes, and his dreams that comprise his 2003 releases and say, “That’s all Jim,” then perhaps one would hear this new album and inquire, “What about Jim?” Which parts are his personal stories and which parts are fictions? Why has his poetic style developed in quite this manner? These issues can be encapsulated in one issue: we knew what he meant when he sang “Mold Me” in 2003, but what is he talking about in 2005 when he sings, “…I molded to you…”?
It is indeed the time that makes this album feel right, the progression of Fusco as an artist—singer and musician alike—that has brought him to the conception and creation of this album.
“I think these are my best songs to date, without a doubt,” Fusco writes in his liner notes. What is more, this is his best album to date.
It is the electric guitar in “Don’t Be That Way” that first distinguishes itself and kicks the album off with electricity. There is distortion, but it is not distracting or overbearing, as harder music can sometimes be. Yet this is a new sound for Jim Fusco—it is louder, more confident.
“Don’t Be That Way” is the perfect album starter. This song is not a cookie cutter single, nor is it too complex to present at the beginning of an album. It truly sets the tone for the songs to come. Musically, it demonstrates Fusco’s increasingly defined guitar style. Throughout the song, it is as though there is a solo bubbling just beneath the surface waiting to explode—as it does a minute and a half into the song.
And when it does, it has been well worth the wait.
Vocally, this is a prime example of subtle yet effective and even powerful backing vocals supporting the words and sound of the lead. As if to make his point, Fusco ends the song with an extended solo intertwined with a repetition of the chorus.
There is no time to pause and reflect upon this, of course, as the first track is immediately juxtaposed with the interlude. This brief instrumental is repeated throughout the album at various points, as if to remind the listener that the songs on this album exist as one complete entity, as well as individual pieces. The interlude is before the tracks and after them and everywhere within the confines of the album—a reminder of the continuity that is a central theme.
The first track begins with electric guitar, the interlude is marked by the keyboards, and the second track—“Can’t Count On Words”—completes the triangle by beginning with acoustic guitar. In the spirit of the symbolic weight that the acoustic guitar carries, this track has a message to be delivered. Fusco’s is not a message of civil rights or any other such cause; but rather, he is concerned with interpersonal communication.
“Can’t count on words to fill the space between,” he sings. This assertion may be based on the unpredictable nature of interpretation. For instance, “casting of willingness” may be a reference to extending one’s enthusiasm, as in a fishing metaphor, in order to catch a greater good. However, it could also refer to the molding (a theme of Fusco’s work in general) of one’s motivation, one’s personality.
The triangle becomes a square as the third track opens with a bass guitar riff. “Another Backwards Day” chronicles the experience of being awake when everyone else is “down”—whether he means that they are sleeping or depressed is anyone’s guess. A quiet, perhaps subliminal nod to Brian Wilson is apparent in the sentiment of this song’s final verse. He sings of having someone at his side “When day begins long into the night,” ala “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” This is only a possible meaning, but a fitting one considering his affection for Wilson and his music.
Just when you thought it couldn’t continue, What About Today?’s compositional square becomes a pentagon. Just as track one begins with electric guitar, the interlude with keyboard, track two with acoustic guitar, and track three with bass, so does track four—although it begins with acoustic also—soon present itself as a very vocally harmonic song. His thought for this track is the passing desire to be less intellectual.
“Sometimes I wish I were dumb so I wouldn’t have to think,” he sings. He entertains the concept of hope being a lengthy word to someone and he considers keeping thoughts at bay, “lowering his field of vision.” Interestingly enough, he decides on the title “Sometimes” as a qualification for this desire to be stupid.
“Reason” provides a timely escape from lyrics and vocals and showcases the aforementioned rapidly developing guitar style—it’s not blues, it’s not quite anyone else; it’s Jim Fusco. He has truly taken his music to another level through his devotion to developing his guitar style, a style that brings this album together in a compelling manner.
“She Waits” is the hidden gem, carefully concealed between five tracks on one side and seven on the other. It begins with a tame keyboard that is innocent enough. The ante is upped with some of the more interesting lyrics of the album, words that draw the listener in. One must wonder where the tale of this mysterious “she” will lead. Of course, no one can know until the end that she will only continue to wait—the story we were waiting to hear and perhaps imagining the outcome of does not in fact exist. “She Waits” as a title is not only the beginning of the story, but the end as well.
The middle section is the most enticing aspect of this song. When Fusco sings, “Tell me what it’s like to live in fear so I don’t have to learn on my own,” one cannot be certain if he’s talking to the woman who has been waiting or if it is the woman herself breaking the silence by speaking up. This is also my favorite vocal section of the album, hands down. The buildup to “oh, oh!” is particularly wonderful. Finally, the solo displays some of the best distortion guitar on any Jim Fusco recording to date.
A few more lines and the song is gone, handing the torch to “Where Are We Now?,” a song that I co-wrote with Jim. As has been mentioned in the liner notes, we wrote this song with a simple “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” effect in mind. We used one too many chords to make it a complete match, but it’s still a jam-worthy tune. Once again, Jim’s guitar is highlighted and he’s given a chance to repeat and expand the solo he created and delivered on the same track on 2004’s Live In The Studio.
And who’s responsible for the awesome harmonica part?…
Another upbeat track follows—“Pack Your Love.” It’s the song that gets stuck in your head. It makes you wonder about lines such as “…hop the bell some more.” It is also the song that gives you the warm and fuzzies from lines like, “If we’re together, anywhere we go, we won’t be far away.” Jack Johnson would agree and might add, “It’s always better when we’re together.” Finally, it leaves you with that intriguing image in mind—one of packing one’s love and leaving to go…where?
Track nine is the harsher “Give and Take,” a song that is notable for one of my favorite images in the Fusco catalog. He sings, “I see the two of you painting signs, but I can’t see what they’re trying not to say!” This is an image of gossip, resentment, and carefully, hurtfully concealed intentions that wound the singer—“Why do they hide when I’ve done nothing to make them scared?”
The anger and energy of “Give and Take” is artfully blended into “What Left To Do?” The latter counteracts the former’s raw emotion with a thoughtful examination of where days go when they are over and how long feelings will remain in effect. The first two choruses leave one wondering whether the singer is hung up on someone or has hung up (as in during a phone call) on someone—a subtle, yet essential distinction. As the middle fades to the chorus, there can be no questioning the intentions of the singer to pursue the girl who has helped him to board his “last ride until the end.” (A note for those who have heard Fusco’s previous work: “Making up words we can’t define” is remarkably analogous to “We’ll make up words that only we know…”)
The keyboards fade and the acoustic guitar signals a transition from asking to telling. Where “What Left To Do?” repeatedly demonstrates uncertainty, “It’s You” suggests confidence with its assertions and certainties. He carefully ties this song back to “Can’t Count On Words” when he sings “…you’ll find it’s not the words that make the song…” This is an instance of the lyrical overlap that is less obvious than the musical congruities and physical blending of the songs. Anyone can edit songs to run together, but uniting their feeling and message is an accomplishment to be noted.
The next track, “Sideshow,” is an interesting exploration of a sideshow as an image. In some ways, Fusco is the burning fire that won’t stop, the “next big thing” that will cause the lines to grow for the show. He has collected his music, recorded it, and arranged it for this album—his sideshow of sorts.
Following another musical interlude, the final track is unleashed. This is a track that could have appeared anywhere else on the album—as the opener, the single, or whatever it needed to be. It is a great way to end this generally upbeat, musically and lyrically strong album. You can become immediately hooked on a song like this, with its crisp guitars and impressively executed vocals. Another alumnus of Live In The Studio, this song is reborn on What About Today? in a manner that demonstrates Fusco’s ability to redefine himself. Probably one of the best songs he’s ever written.
That these notes have barely scratched the surface of the content of Jim Fusco’s latest release should be defense enough for its excellent rating. All my biases aside, it is one of the best albums of the year and deserves to be heard.