This album is cool on so many levels it is hard to know where to start, so before we talk music, let us get the amenities out of the way. First, the label, Roomful of Sky Records, makes the package as environmentally friendly as possible, which means that all but the CD itself is recyclable. Sure, many labels and artists are doing it these days, but that doesn’t make it any less important. Second, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of the album will be donated to the charity of the artist’s choice, in this case, Project Renewal. Third, Jason Vitelli put this together himself and, yes, I hear you when you say there are a lot of people doing it, but not like Vitelli. More on that later. Fourth, the recording is so in your face that you’re hearing the artist in all his glory, vocal-wise, and in this day of autotune and digitized tracking, there is something to be said for it. Fifth, Vitelli went to one of the best for mastering, Barry Diament in fact, and I’m sure it cost him a few guidas, but there are few mastering engineers out there with the experience and the expertise of Diament and Vitelli obviously knows it. More on that later too.
About the music. Sometimes music steamrolls you, sometimes it leaves you flat. Sometimes it kicks you to the side of the curb and sometimes it almost gives you a heart attack. What Vitelli’s does is bring you back, time and again, and I can’t seem to nail down why. Or I couldn’t until I hit track number five. “Tortured Lane (Hobo Song)” is what one of my old friends used to call motatin’, a driving solid beat dragging me through three minutes and forty three seconds of short bursts of musical sanity broken up by odd chord changes and this weird sense of bobble-headedness (I swear to God, I could not stop my head from bobbing to the beat). Voice up front and void of bells and whistles and as much an instrument of rhythm as music. Bass and guitars on a mission, the rhythm guitar the heartbeat along with percussion, lead guitar adding overdrive before the song winds down into poetic reading and fadeout. I heard a semblance of the sound before, and recently. Mist and Mast took me on a few exhilarating treks with their superb 2009 release, Action at a Distance, and I hear a third cousin, twice removed in Jason Vitelli. Yep, this is good stuff. And it isn’t your normal fare.
To give you an example, after the motatin’ “Tortured Lane”, Vitelli dips into mental electronics with “Locked”, a space mission gone awry, before laying you back with the light pop/jazz/folk of “Morning Sun”, alto sax floating over and between layers of harmony vocals, synthesized strings and acoustic guitar. On to “Zeta Male”, a musical nod to rock opera, intended or not. To the very mainstream light rocking “Broken”, which could have ended up on an England Dan & John Ford Coley album had the timing been right. At first, you get the feeling of a musical rollercoaster, and it is a ride.
Truth be told, this should not work, but it really does. Somehow the songs, even when leaping from hornfrog to tea party, weave a spell and you find yourself listening to not the songs themselves but to the journey taken and the more you take that journey, the more you don’t care about the technicalities. As you listen, it takes on the aura of it-is-what-it-is but in a positive sense because it has that gravitational pull and you might, like myself, find yourself going back for more without the realization.
One more thing— okay, two more things. First, toss aside your preconceptions of musician-alone projects. We spend too much time picking apart the lesser talents of artists who attempt doing everything themselves (though, technically, Vitelli does incorporate the talents of Roomful of Sky’s Phil Robinson on one track and avoids that rap). Listen closely to the music and you will find that Vitelli is notable as much for what he does not attempt as what he does. He knows his limitations (we cannot all be multi-instrumental masters) and he plays to his strengths. A big thumbs up there. Second, Barry Diament works with music all the time, one would think to the point of exhaustion at times. Not only did he keep coming back to Vitelli’s music after his job was done, but he stamped No Photographs with his take on what they call ‘The Loudness Wars’. He is against it, this loudness for loudness’ sake, and he mastered accordingly. He also pointed me in Vitelli’s direction. I owe him for both.
You know what? Even though I might not hand this to anyone asking for something new and good, I would hand it to someone I knew really wanted something new and good and had a track record of really listening. Like Diament implied, there is something in Jason Vitelli which makes us want to hear it again, and again. I don’t think he’s entirely sure what it is. I sure don’t, but it must be there. I’m still listening, and I will be long after this is finished.