Josh Joplin Group: Useful Music
Playing Time: 51:59
Josh Joplin has every good reason to be optimistic that new life has been breathed into his latest opus, Useful Music. After almost a full year of universal critical approval and irregular rotation of a strong single, the intriguingly philosophical soft-rock stomper, Matter, on a scattering of pop/rock radio stations with an alternate rock bias, the Josh Joplin Group finds itself anointed once again with promise. Two tracks have penetrated a wide and moneyed market, a bountiful byproduct of being included on the highly successful tv soundscapes of Dawson's Creek and Roswell.
Josh Joplin's musical vision far transcended his small town upbringing. His search for something grand led him along the musical paths once traveled by Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger, yet filtered through the frenetic energies of harder-edged sensibilities such as those found in the music of The Smiths and The Clash. Once a singer-songwriter creating an uneven body of songs that might readily be dismissed as songs his heroes might have written were some of them not so craftily charming, Joplin soon outgrew the limitations of the one-man-band, and the Josh Joplin Group was born. Joplin's songwriting talents evolved as well; Useful Music contains a barrage of brilliantly personal songs, a stunning assortment of off-kilter insights and strangely impressionistic narratives, all honestly and passionately delivered on killer hooks.
The CD opens with the industrial grumbling of Matter, a grinding exploration of the philosophical nature of the stuff of dreams and the permanence of the soul¹s energy, all cleverly disguised as a rock song. A kick-ass chorus and ex-Talking Heads' guitarist Jerry Harrison's pulsating layers of production are melded into a powerful opening number on a work that balances complexity and simplicity with breathtaking dexterity. It is no great surprise that the only other song produced by Mr. Harrison is the guitar-driven didactic narrative of a Hollywood suicide that flares into the news briefly before sinking into perpetual obscurity, a song which also received a modicum of air time. Harrison's realization of Joplin's vision produces moments of artistic achievement rarely equaled on other selections of this disc.
Most of the material on Useful Music is produced by Shawn Mullins (of Lullaby fame); the songs remain unique portrayals of Mr. Joplin's singularly offbeat observations about life's peculiarities as well as its profundities, yet Mullins does not craft the songs so tightly. A song such as Gravity with its wry speculation on the nature of time and death ( 'Everybody falls in small degrees...that's gravity') is allowed to ramble before it finds its focus. That its focus is the trivialization of the death of the King of Rock and Roll by the commercialization of Graceland is not as surprising as the fact that these ideas are conveyed in images astonishing in their simplicity. Here I Am laments love's strange distances with a bitter-sweet melody that lifts it far above being a mere parody of maudlin self-pity. Undone proposes a mathematical paradox as a clue to the identity of the singer in a lyric that of the Dave Matthews school of facile word play: 'We are all one/ We divide within the sum of any outcome, undone'.
Perhaps the most captivating song on Useful Music is Trailways, a jubilant road song that smacks of being autobiographical; indeed, Joplin did scuff about the country, paying homage to Phil Ochs at his birthplace, El Paso, Texas, all the while absorbing the stories and the minutiae that render each recounting an authentic slice of Americana. Yet, as much as the singer is on the move by bus in Trailways, the destination is never less than vague; even 'home' is a shifting image destined to lead to the aching realization that 'I'm going home despite/ That Thomas wolfe was right'. This song darts playfully between a childlike chant and a military tattoo, unique instrumentation and shifting rhythms stitching the song skillfully together.
One supreme benefit that Joplin derives from the inclusion of a group is that the music expands with his vision. A variety of instrumentation allows the aural backdrop to range from quaintly rootslike to clever and catchy, even powerful. Here is an artist that grows more secure as his ideas are shaped and nurtured by others...yet skillfully steps aside on Phil Ochs to deliver a plaintive eulogy (long after the fact of Ochs' death) that intertwines musings about the meaning of fame and how a long ago death reaches out to touch the living singer if only with the message that the world remains unchanged.
Superstar chants and dances its way through words that are not meant to point to any profound meeting of intellect and meaning...they just roll out together like boisterously joyous intimates on a rollocking walk home, comic relief the musical way. Human slams on the breaks, wipes the smile from our faces, and thrusts us up against the nature of our humanity, our weaknesses, needs, and inconsistencies...all made bearable by love (or is it the illusion of love?) making us human. Two versions of I've Changed are presented (making the total count for this song three, as it was also an inclusion on an earlier Joplin release), not so much to profess self-doubt as to the worth of each song, but rather to present the same idea in two different musical contexts. Despite the song's stark message that hints at suicide and salvation, both viable reactions to pain and loss, the song is presented equally effectively as a string-swept surge of emotion that only heightens the singer's sense of futility, and as a stark reflection of simple introspection, equally touching.
Useful Music is useful music indeed, if you can find use for a musical body of work that delights in instructing the listener with wisdom and conundrum alike, and entertains with sharply rendered songs and a variety of styles, all enthusiastically delivered with skill underscored by a an edgy sense of melodic entertainment. Perhaps, as Joplin says 'dreams are not lost'...maybe they are destined to find the wider audience that this dreamer deserves...has earned.
[More information on Josh Joplin may be found at http://www.joshjoplinband.com/ - Ed]
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