Former Fleet Fox flames into being as Father John Misty.

I Love You Honeybear, Father John Misty

I Love You, Honeybear, Father John Misty

J. Tillman spent four years as the drummer with Fleet Foxes after joining the band in 2008. But by then he’d already produced four or five solo albums. And since leaving the band in 2012, he’s added another in the guise of his new persona Father John Misty. But nothing could have prepared us for what he offers up here, with this his second album under that moniker, I Love You, Honeybear.

Tillman said that for years, he dreamt of garnering the kind of hallowed praise that the likes of Townes Van Zandt or Gram Parsons are garlanded with, and of remaining forever one of music’s fabled secret finds. But he gradually came to realise that the audience at his gigs were far more engaged with the relaxed, smart alec persona he adopted in between songs, than they were with the somewhat po-faced numbers he was ostensibly there to perform.

So he headed off into the desert with enough magic mushrooms to send a psychedelic elephant into space and sat down to write a novel. And it was only then that he finally found his song writing voice. This is the result.

Lennon and Nilsson get thrown of The Troubadour.

Lennon and Nilsson get thrown out of The Troubadour.

As the boys from Pitchfork note in their review here, where it gets a suitably impressed 8.8, it is, at least initially, a disconcertingly slippery record to pin down.

Yes there are the sorts of soaring harmonies you’d expect from a former Fleet Fox. And sure, the Beatles are indeed an obvious reference.

But it’s the kind of Beatles album you might have heard had John Lennon made it all by himself five years after they split up. He and Harry Nilsson downed industrial sized quantities of drugs in L.A. every night, sending the former Beatle on a rollercoaster of violent mood swings that saw him oscillate wildly from profound self-disgust and doubt, to arrogant disdain and scorn, and back again.

J Tillman, born again as Father John Misty.

J Tillman, born again as Father John Misty.

Even when Tillman puts the violent introspection of Lennon aside to momentarily channel George Harrison in When You’re Smiling and Astride Me, there’s a dangerous edge to the lyrics, not withstanding the honeyed sweep of the guitar.

It’s the perfect palliative to the track that precedes it, The Night Josh Tillman Came To Our Apartment, where a latter day Factory girl is felled by the kind of undiluted scorn a young Dylan would have approved of.

“She says, like literally, music is the air she breathes,

And the malaprops make me want to fucking scream,

I wonder if she even knows what that word means,

Well, it’s literally not that.”

And we’ll assume of course that the misuse of malaprops was done for comic effect. What’s so impressive, and so emotionally engaging about the album is that it perfectly captures the confusion of youth, but it does so thanks to a lyrical and musical sophistication that only comes with age.

Just say Yes.

Just say Yes.

Sure it’s hard to know precisely when he’s merely striking a carefully constructed pose, and when he’s genuinely shedding the many masks to reveal the boy beneath. But his glorious grasp of melody, and the unrestrained passion that he delivers them in give a strong sense that beneath the surface scorn, there’s a lot more of the real him on show than he’d care to readily admit.

And it’s that combination of un-repentant intellectual confidence with profound emotional confusion, together with the clear sense that this is an album, that has been clearly thought about and meticulously programmed, that makes this such an impressive piece of work.

You can see him perform one of its songs, Bored in the USA on Letterman here.

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Iron & Wine’s Sumptuous New Album “Ghost On Ghost”.

Ghost On GhostIt looked as if Iron & Wine was part of that vogue for new roots Americana that was all the rage about 4 or 5 years ago. Musicians seemed to be turning away from digitally mastered layers of processed synths and returning instead to original instruments acoustically recorded in lofi.

Gillian Welch and Allison Krauss sang on O Brother Where Art Thou. And bands like Fleet Foxes, Bon Iver and Iron & Wine enjoyed unexpected popular acclaim, which I wrote about earlier here.

Inevitably the hoi polloi caught on, and the result was alas Mumford and Sons.

In many ways though Iron & Wine, aka Sam Beam, has been moving in the opposite direction all along. He might have begun in the hushed, paired down, sparse acoustic mode beloved of many a bedroom. But his soundscape has been expanding ever since.

His third album, The Shepherd’s Dog from 2007, which seemed at the time to be quintessentially lofi, was followed by Kiss Each Other Clean in 2011, and now this, Ghost On Ghost.

With each new album the sound gets bigger, the arrangements more complex and his plaintive vocals are cushioned ever more comfortably in a bed of reverb and overdub.

Gram-ParsonIn other words, he’s pursuing the same course charted by Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers in the late 60s and early 70s. And by merging the rich harmonies of the Beach Boys with the graft and craft of The Band, he gives his angst an unexpected glean.

“Desert Babbler”, track 2 on this latest album, sounds like it could have been the B side on an unreleased Beach Boys Christmas single. And track 3, “Joy” could just as easily have been its A side. You can see the video for it here.

Whilst the penultimate track, “Lovers’ Revolution” feels like something that might have turned up on Astral Weeks if somebody else had been asked to pick up the mike – you can hear it here. Before “Baby Center Stage” brings the album to a serene close by returning us to the realm of Fleetwood Mac, sunshine and California.

Pristine pop cased in a rich musical heritage.

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