Technology has redefined collaboration in every field of endeavor, including music. Note that technology does not automatically improve the ability of our defective species to communicate, collaborate or create. It’s simply the medium, not the message, so fuck you, Marshall McLuhan.
These Curious Thoughts describe their form of long-distance collaboration on their website as follows:
As modern-day pen pals, Sean Dunlop (US) and Jamie Radford (UK) have utilized the Internet to remain in contact and compose their unique songs for nearly a decade. Being separated by the Atlantic Ocean has had little effect on the productivity of this musical partnership. Radford provides lyrics and inspiration via email for Dunlop who then composes the music.
Hmm. Well, productivity is one thing, but what about quality? The Alt Rock Chick diligently applied herself to the study of their most recent album, Building Mountains from the Ground to answer that very question. I think the concept is very cool, but really, it all comes down to the listening experience, so it doesn’t matter much to me whether a band has locked themselves away in a studio or bonds through via email.
From a pure songwriting standpoint, the collaboration works. Not once did I wonder, “Why the hell did Dunlop go with that musical style for those words?” The music is perfectly suited to Jamie Radford’s unusual and often penetrating lyrics.
My first impression of the music itself was that I had time-traveled to the time of the Strawbs and It’s a Beautiful Day: the songs tend towards the melodic and spacey, and are sometimes longer than they need to be. The melodies are often strong and pleasant, but as was the case in the late 1960’s, the tracks sometimes drag a bit too long and we “lose the beauty of the melody/until it sounds just like a symphony.” Chuck Berry was a very wise man, indeed.
Another aspect of the sound is that you have to accept going in is that these are home studio recordings. That isn’t bad in itself; most of the crap we hear today is recorded in professional studios and we’ve learned that great recording gear can’t save you if your music sucks. What home recording means is that there are certain limitations and certain traps. The limitations of home studios are most apparent in the vocals, which tend to sound muddy and unclear. As vocals are the most difficult sounds to record under any circumstances, we have to cut Dunlop some slack here. The trap of home recording is that the software and the set-up make it too easy to add sounds to the mix. “That would sound cool,” thinks the performer-engineer-producer, so he or she throws it in. Too many of the songs on Building Mountains from the Ground suffer from excessive clutter when simpler and more focused arrangements would have better supported the musical structure of the song. Some of the arrangements sound as complex as those on Sgt. Pepper; the difference is that George Martin and Geoff Emerick were experienced and talented professionals working with excellent (for the time) equipment in a studio environment that can handle complexity AND they weren’t the musicians. Although Sean Dunlop is a very talented and capable musician, it’s not necessary to show the whole portfolio all at once. The best home recordings I’ve heard tend to be comparatively simple, and the best songs on Building Mountains from the Ground are the simpler arrangements.
One of these better cuts is the opener, “I’ve Got God on the Phone,” which features a dialogue with God during the choruses. I cracked up when God answered the phone, “What the hell do you want?” God seems to find humans a bit tiresome and whiny, a view I often share, particularly at work. Another strong cut is “Nothing Is Supernatural,” featuring some very solid lead guitar work, and dreamy, melodic vocals over a pillowy background. The next song, “The Illusionist,” has the strongest lyrics in the set, and best reflects the strong ambivalence about religion and spirituality that runs through the album:
I sit alone as I control the channels of your mind
I read your clocks and distort all the voices heard outside
I use tricks to influence everything you do
I move through time ‘cos heaven is mine and hell is my world too
I’m illusionist it’s all smoke and mirrors in this life ‘cos we are sinners
There’s no such thing as an honest gent and there’s no time to repent so I won’t
The most powerful set of lyrics can be found in “When God Was a Boy,” the final cut on the album. The narrator is obviously an aging veteran who has outlived his pals and finds himself quite alone in the world:
My bones are weak I hurt all the time
I look outside my window but cannot go outside
I want the sunshine but it rains everyday
All my friends are dead I don’t even know my name
I was old when god was a boy
I fought in many wars but now I need a hand
All alone in my home I find it hard to stand
When there is nothing left with my last breath
I’ll let out a sigh when they pour the dirt over my head
I’ll reach out for the light
The music here is quite reminiscent of mid-period Moody Blues, particularly in the instrumental passages. The contrast with the lyrics creates a sense of irony and bitterness, emphasized by fading out on the repeated fragment, “I was old.”
I would define These Curious Thoughts as a work in progress with a great deal of promise. I noted that they’ve formed a small stateside band to play some of the music live, and I think that’s a very good thing. The Beatles wouldn’t have been as good as they were without those years in Hamburg, and playing with other musicians is always a growth experience. Composers and lyricists have been relatively easy match-ups since the days of Rodgers and Hart, because the two have complementary skills. It’s different when musicians work with other musicians, because there’s more potential for contrast as well as conflict. Still, as Blake wrote, “Opposites are necessary to human existence,” and These Curious Thoughts both prove that wisdom and need to apply that wisdom to move to the next level.
You can learn more about Building Mountains from the Ground from this trailer: