Brian Cullman and Glenn Patscha— A Comparative Analysis
More two reviews in one than a comparative analysis, really. A simple, dry bonehead rundown of music in its most technical (read, emotional) aspects. If I was a mathematician, this would be numbers; a computer programmer, 1’s and 0’s; a baseball player, used husks of sunflower seeds arranged in flighty patterns. But I’m not. I’m a writer, so you’ll have to settle for a treatise on music released four years ago which somehow eluded all but a few and which has been bypassed by a world Cyrus-ied and Bieber-tuded and, yes, Katy Im-Perry-led to death. You may substitute Springsteen and The Beatles and Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd for the older set, but the idea is the same. No guts, no music. Or in the big picture, music which everyone has heard and hears whether they like it or not. No good music anymore? There certainly won’t be if people don’t start paying attention.
Example: In 2007, you missed Brian Cullman’s All Fires the Fire and Glenn Patscha’s Songs From the Jefferson Highway. Well, most of you did. I did too, but the musical gods have corrected that error by putting me in touch with Cullman who proceeded to browbeat me into submission (he sent me his CD). Not long after, before I could absorb that, he sent me a copy of Patscha’s album. Then he sent me a copy of Byron Isaac’s yet to be released Disappearing Man, as transcendent an album as I’ve heard this year (and I’m hearing some absolute killers). Then he sent me copies of an Internet radio show he hosts, Songs On Toast, on which he takes us on world journeys through music. Listening to all of that sent me on a path tangent to the one I was on and I found myself ignoring what needed to be done and concentrating on what was. I was tired. I was burned out. I was listening for all the wrong reasons and, as a result, writing poorly. I needed a break. I didn’t know how badly.
I realized it somewhere around my fiftieth listen to All Fires the Fire and maybe my twentieth of Songs From the Jefferson Highway. I started listening and one day I looked up and it was two weeks later. I had been shuffling those two CDs into my player constantly during those two weeks, ignoring the stacks of CDs and music files needing reviews. I felt a bit embarrassed and more than a little guilty. Until, that is, I realized that I was feeling great! Unbeknownst to me, those two albums had served as a palate cleanser and music began sounding surprisingly fresh again. I began once again listening because I wanted to and not because I had to.
Because of that, and because I fell in complete love with both Cullman’s and Patscha’s albums, I am writing this. I don’t know how well these albums were received on release but I know it was not enough. Had it been, I would not have to search the Net so intensely for information beyond the sites hoping to make money off of the music. Had it been, I would have known the names and maybe the music and many of you would too. I have mentioned to more than a few people that these albums should be in a classroom as examples of recording, songwriting and arranging. They are that good. Let me explain why.
Brian Cullman/All Fires the Fire…
I wish I had a wife or a girlfriend. Every time I put this album into the player, I realize that I am not enough. I prefer to think it is a result of the music rather than myself (though I do know that I could be more) for there is a humanity in Cullman’s music which is truly larger than life. It needs to be shared to be really appreciated. He uses universal themes, themes so simple and so large that you have to almost isolate yourself to even begin to understand— love, life, fear, loss. All bigger than myself and all somewhat beyond comprehension. They are subjects of a few million other songs, most mundane at best, but which he somehow makes new and fresh. It is the perspective, I guess, and I can’t tell if it is his or mine. It doesn’t matter, really. I only know that every song on this album strikes home hard.
Why? For one thing, Cullman not only wrote a whole album of exceptional and musically unpretentious songs, he made sure that song was king. Unless you’re a musician, you have no idea how hard that is to do. Every musician has a strength and sometimes more than one: voice, instrumental legerdemain, songwriting skills, performance ability, arranging, producing….. It is finding a way to balance the strengths and weaknesses which takes a musician to a higher level. Cullman simply buried his ego and found that balance.
On All Fires, he brings a sense of the fifties and early sixties to his music, but not the standard R&B or Rock ‘n’ Roll. No, he brings a sense of the orchestral and the romantic and the majestic. And the exotic. Somehow, he weaves magic into his songs reminiscent of Martin Denny and Hugo Winterhalter and Andre Kostelanetz, but on another level. “Somewhere Else,” for instance, is a celestial daydream complete with lap steel highs and woodwind breezes so exquisite that you can smell the South Seas and hear the waves lap against the beach. Is what I hear in “The Promise” a light shuffling samba? I am not well-versed in the Latin side of music, but what I hear in that song makes me think I am. It is astonishingly beautiful three in the morning music and leaves me practically breathless every time I hear it. And it makes me want to learn to dance. Really dance, not shuffle around the floor in a spasmodic craze. The fade-in on “The Secret Doors” is a high in itself, but when Cullman starts softly singing “The dogs are barking all night long, I hear them in my dreams, They chase the moon from Winnipeg, Down to New Orleans”, I get chills. Beneath is a muted semi-Native American (or maybe just native) beat and some of the most haunting lap steel I’ve ever heard helped along by slight guitar feedback, subtle electric piano with minor chord harmonic voices thrown in for good measure. Cullman sounds like a softer-voiced Charles Aznavour on “As a Man Gets Older,” an emotional look at aging which almost brings me to tears (the key word here is ‘almost’). There is truth in the song, Truth only an older man can perceive. Or maybe just an older person.
The piece de resistance, though, is the regal “No God But God,” a work so majestic it takes my breath away. The message in itself is moving, but you cannot imagine without hearing just how everything comes together. I have used the word ‘masterpiece’ in the past referring to God knows what, but this is truly a masterpiece and captures the message as well as I’ve ever heard it. And the arrangement? Whew.
Speaking of arrangements, we take them for granted until we hear an album like this. Cullman, Patscha and Hector Castillo pulled out all the stops making each and every song the best that it could be. The drums and percussion of Tony Leone are primo; the subtle vocals of Fiona McBain, crucial in their simplicity; the bass and especially lap steel work of Byron Isaacs, astonishing; the keyboards of Glenn Patscha, absolutely superb; and the woodwinds of John Ellis— without them, it would not have been the album that it is. Even Barry Reynolds and Oren Bloedow deserve mention, even though they only played on a couple of tracks. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a closet producer, that I always find places I hear differently or would have recorded differently. Not here. Hand me this record and point me to a studio and I would only hand it back. I wouldn’t change a note.
When I contacted Brian and told him I wanted to write about All Fires the Fire, he sent me this note: “One of the only reviews I’ve ever gotten described me as sounding like Dion on Quaaludes. Ouch.” I don’t know which album that person was listening to, but it sure as hell wasn’t this one. Cullman’s voice may not be perfect, but the music folds around it bewitchingly. I cannot imagine another voice on these songs. And I don’t want to.
Glenn Patscha/Songs From the Jefferson Highway…
At first listen, it was hard for me to correlate Songs From the Jefferson Highway to All Fires the Fire. The sounds are different, the direction is different, the feel is different. About the only thing you could point to seems to be the bottom end— that deep, deep base (explained later) which gives both albums tremendous depth at just the right moments. Other than that, this could have been produced on a different planet. Almost.
Anyone up for a concept album? Because if this isn’t one, it sure sounds like one. Starting with the opening theme, “Jefferson Highway (Winnipeg to New Orleans).” A floating, atmospheric instrumental lays the groundwork and one can almost see opening credits on a screen. Beautifully layered and orchestral, it is a lead-in setting up a drifting yet powerful “Recipe For Life,” a work involved enough to make it more than just a song. That base? Here, it is a percussive effect strong enough to make a nose bleed, an explosion so different by what surrounds it that it makes you gasp. A perfect setup for “When My Baby Cries,” a combination of Beach Boys and 10CC pop, a perfect drink for a hot summer day. Make no mistake, this is a journey. Only the adventurous would follow a light pop song with the grinding and just short of sci-fi musical twist that is “Erase Me” (except maybe Canada’s The Beige whose El Angel Exterminador took me to a different universe on every song). Both eerie and somewhat chaotic, it is a segue to, of all things, a ballad of sorts. “Such Sweet Angels,” thanks in part to a semi-falsetto take on the chorus, is uplifting and alluring. Know what? He really should have put an Americana-ish song next— but wait! He did! “Rosalee,” in its odd country rock cloak, is yet another turn left and, man, Patscha’s semi-falsetto takes another song up a notch. The more somnambulant “Snow” is reflection in three-quarter time, a quiet intake of breath on a cold winter night, which gives way to a segue of the musical mind, “Lonesome Jesus,” with its electronically altered voices and heavy and plodding low-end piano chords. Listen loud on headphones and it is intensity squared. (At this point, let me state that listening to both the Cullman and Patscha albums on headphones geometrically enhances the musical experience. FYI.) “Crazy Jane” somehow makes me think Mary Jane and I don’t know why except that it (she) was the subject of so many songs of the late sixties and early seventies and I can’t seem to shake my past. The song itself reminds me a bit of 10CC in the early days— in feel more than in actual sound. The vocal harmonies at the end? Spot on and worth mention. Then it is time for theme and variation, prog fans, because Patscha combines the odd chord progressions and theme of “Jefferson Highway” to the mood of “Snow” and comes up with the cinematic “Interplanetary Salvation Army Band,” something the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band might have eventually progressed toward had they stayed together another decade or two— a skeletal structure of the unstructured.
Did I hear someone mention Pet Sounds? There is a bit of the same kind of music magic going on here. Close your eyes and you can hear it, the flow from song to song, the left turns and right turns, the common thread when there doesn’t seem to be one. I would say, like I always do, that ‘this is good stuff’, but to be truthful, this is better than good. This is first class. This is the kind of music music junkies search for.
An Attempt at Analysis…
Sometimes I get too close to the music. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by people doing what I can’t and what most other people can’t. I am intrigued by the differences between the two albums which were, after all, recorded at the same time by the same people at the same studio. They should be Side A and Side B but aren’t. When I asked Cullman why, he said “We recorded our albums at the same time and co-produced each others’ songs. It was a fun way to work (we had ten days at Philip Glass’s studio). We would take turns alternating songs and working with the same band—Ollabelle, more or less. For the first five or six days, it felt like the songs could be part of the same record. Then, they started to shift, to become very different.”
Very different. But the getting there was different. If, as some musicians believe, 90% of an album is preparation, why shouldn’t they be?
“Back in 1997,” Cullman continued, “I began recording an album in New Orleans (where I met Glenn). I had a great crew of people helping— Syd Straw singing with me, John Mooney on slide guitar, and a lot of the players now featured on TREME as my band— Raymond Webber on drums, Cornell Williams on bass, Big D on guitar. I never quite finished the album for a number of reasons (financial, emotional, personal). (Then) I shifted gears pretty dramatically and time slipped away from me. Early in 2007, I got a call from someone who had been a fan and supporter who now had a position at a small record label. He wanted to release the album I had made. I was flattered but uncertain about putting it out. I listened again and the songs were good and the recordings were good, but they felt like they belonged to a different time and were coming from a different sensibility. It led me to try and figure out what I would do if I recorded an album now (meaning then). And I started writing the songs which became the basis for All Fires the Fire. The first song I wrote was “As a Man Gets Older” and that set the tone and mood of the album. It seemed to all fall into place from there, one song following another until it felt like it was an entire statement.
“One thing I tried to bring to those songs was a sense of being grown up, of having to deal with the nuts and bolts of the world: mortgages and taxes and school meetings and leaks in the basement. Getting up in the morning knowing that you would have to get up the next morning. Those things at that time were new to me but were very much a part of the life and world I’d grown into and they needed to be acknowledged.”
Glenn Patscha’s take?
“I was a bit concerned in the beginning that because Brian and I are the best of friends, communication would be difficult in a new and different context, but it wasn’t. The idea was to go into the studio with a common cast of characters and differing visions for our own projects and work on both simultaneously. This took pressure off of making long-reaching choices based upon simple time constraints and it allowed us to have different perspectives of where we were at any time in the process.
“What I was trying to create was a memoir of my journey from Winnipeg to New Orleans and on to New York. For me it was like making an album, but not a record album— more like a photo album. Before we recorded it, I saw the songs as pieces I had written that I liked and wanted to record. It was only after the fact that I saw how autobiographical the record was. It hit me like a ton of bricks, to be honest. Dealing with everything from great loss to my travels to re-occurring ghosts from my past meant something completely different when I was done.
“Most of the music was composed beforehand but arranged in the studio. I like doing things that way because because I find that sonic context changes in every situation. I wanted to use what I had available rather than trying to overreach and then being disappointed with the colours. There are a few pieces that were created in the studio— “Lonesome Jesus,” an arrangement of an Appalachian folk song that I heard via my friend, John Ellis, and both “Jefferson Highway” interludes. Those are actually some of my favorite moments on the record.
“Working with Brian on his record was a really great experience. I think he chose to do something really courageous. Anyone who sings or plays knows how hard it is to come back after a long hiatus. I think that Brian’s songs and vision were strong enough to guide him to a great place. I watched him reworking songs, writing great lyrics and, as always, being committed to making the most honest record possible. It was tremendously inspiring to me. We have a common love for music in the moment— the salvation army band idea, for instance. And I love that there are glimpses of those rough edges in some of the songs.
“Part of why I jumped in to making this record was that I was exhausted by the process of recording the third Ollabelle album. We were all very tired. Tired of trying to move a mountain by committee and frustrated by the particularly challenging inter-personal time we were trying to work through. I wanted to make a record and throw every idea I had at the wall to see what worked. I wanted to create without the constant grind of the collective. I love Songs From the Jefferson Highway, which was the result. To be able to enjoy a record I have made is a tremendous step for me.”
I wondered. I hear a few things— themes, rhythms, chord progressions— which are common to both albums. Just a few, though. The ‘heavy bottom’, for instance. Both albums utilize overwhelming depth at points— on Jefferson Highway, most notably the percussive effects on “Recipe For Life”; on All Fires, the booming but smooth bass of “No God But God.” They both use “from Winnipeg to New Orleans” too. But each album is an entity of its own. From different worlds, from different people, yet recorded at the same place and the same time by the same people. I can’t help but be amazed.