Sunday, October 7, 2007

David J - Embrace Your Dysfunction (2003)

As I said before, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to purchase a copy of David J's Embrace Your Dysfunction, actually credited to David J's Cabaret Oscuro (meaning "dark cabaret" as well as I understand... but I don't speak Spanish). The album was originally released as a limited edition bonus to Estranged, but despite the low price ($10) and cheap container and liner notes (a mere paperboard sleeve), it stands on its own well enough as an album, especially considering the hour-long running time (when including the video track). The album contains two remakes of classic J songs, two remasters of recent EP tracks, four covers, three new originals, and one live take of an Estranged "song". Somehow it all works together fairly well.

I wish I knew more about Cabaret Oscuro, but it's rather hard to come by information about them. It hard to say if they are more of a side project or a backing band for J. Best as I can tell, the main collaborative force is Joyce Rooks on cello (and other instruments), but a few others seem to show up a lot, such as guitarist Mark Miller and percussionist Kris Krull. J, as per normal, provides vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, samples, and some synthesizer. Again, as far as I can ascertain, Cabaret Oscuro is a more recent assemblage – I think these songs were written and recorded after Estranged even though they found release at the same time. The band played along the West Coast quite a bit, and I think they are still active in some regard.. I could be very wrong about that.

Artist: David J's Cabaret Oscuro
Album: Embrace Your Dysfunction
Release Date: September 9, 2003
Label: Heyday
Producer: Unlisted, but undoubtedly David J

Tracklist:
01. Sorrow Sleeps at Night (Song for Llana Lilla)
02. Ten Little Beauty Queens [Live]
03. Mexican Drugstore [Remastered] [With Roberto Mendoza] [Originally from the Mess Up EP, 2003]
04. Goth Girls in Southern California [Remastered] [Originally from the Mess Up EP, 2003]
05. Dress Sexy at My Funeral [Smog cover]
06. My Life in Art [KXLU Radio Session 2002] [Mojave 3 cover]
07. By the Time I Get to Phoenix [Jimmy Webb cover]
08. Streets of Berlin [Ute Lemper cover]
09. Tell Me, Henry Kissinger
10. Life in Laralay [Originally by Love & Rockets]
11. Embrace Your Dysfunction [Live]
12. The Trees in Silence Sing [Video]

Analysis:
Embrace Your Dysfunction begins with the ten-minute, jam-ish, electronic noise-laden "Sorrow Sleeps at Night (Song for Llana Lilla)", a piece that never really changes and keeps the same steady sound the whole time. I think the piece is a bit long, but I like that instruments drift in and out through the measures, and J sings the whole while about a murdered girl and the motion lights built to prevent another similar incident.

The next song is a live rendition of J's "Ten Little Beauty Queens", originally released on 1992's Urban Urbane. This version is dominated by eerie sounds, an electronic drumbeat, and Joyce Rooks' cello. The original version features prominent guitar, but this version seems intentionally darker and strange. This version's music matches the disturbing lyrical content about a creepy dude who dressed up girls and took pictures of them in nooses until one died in an accident and was convicted for murder. The other remake on the album, "Life in Laralay" is similarly significantly changed in sound from the original version, released on Love & Rockets' second album, 1986's Express. This version follows the original's structure, but the only instruments are Rooks' cello, J's vocals, and some backing vocals. The spareness treats the song well, mostly because the arrangement was cleverly put together. The lyrical indictment of Hollywood still holds true.

Two of the most developed songs on the album are actually remastered versions of songs that appeared on the Mess Up EP. "Mexican Drugstore", done together with Roberto Mendoza, is a sort of Mexican electronic song. The song sounds fairly light, and a variety of instruments make for an interesting sound. (My only qualm is the tone of the lead electric guitar, which sounds too close to an elevator music tone for comfort.) The lyrics simply concern the variety of people that go to the Mexican drugstore to "take away our pain". Apparently, "we all got the same prescription", as J sings over an extended relaxed-sounding outro. "Goth Girls in Southern California", made up mostly of guitar, cello, and drums, goes through every cliché of the goth subculture. The lyrics are fairly witty, not failing to reference Peter Murphy. A great choppy middle section breaks up the feel a bit, and at the end, a harpsichord enters to changes things up, and it works well. Despite running through all the stereotypes, J concludes with "oh, leave them alone!". It would be fairly hard for someone who (like it or not) was in one of the original goth rock bands to not defend the subculture he helped define, even if it has changed over the years.

The middle of Embrace Your Dysfunction is full of covers, all of which make for interesting choices. The first, "Dress Sexy at My Funeral", originally by Smog, is rather humorous. The semi-standard guitar and cello combo appears, as it does in a cover of Mojave 3's "My Life in Art", which also features some drums and backing vocals. The song is fairly slow, but I really like the sort of nostalgic sound to it all. The chorus of "Tell me 'bout your life in art / tell me 'bout the boulevards / because Europe always seemed so far" is just great. J's next cover choice is the Jimmy Webb song "By the Time I Get to Phoenix", a classic-sounding slow and sad song about leaving a lover, but the most inventive cover is his interpretation of Philip Glass and Martin Sherman's "Streets of Berlin". The song has a definite cabaret feel, which is perfect for J's recent sound, and the electronics and cello fit right in. The song laments leaving Berlin, but seems more clearly about the harshness of the city and the streets.

"Tell Me, Henry Kissinger" is a biting piece about the eponymous person. Most of the instrumentation is just a few picked chords and a few reverb-drenched drum clashes, but organ, a snare reminiscent of J's V for Vendetta EP, and other instruments appear. The last song on the regular CD is "Embrace Your Dysfunction", a live version of the segue track found at the end of "Bright in Your Absence" on Estranged. It sounds nearly identical except for the crowd cheers.

The final part of the album is an accompanying video on the CD for "Trees in Silence Sing", a sort of tribute written after 9/11. I really like the lyrics, which lament that cassettes aren't allowed in Afghanistan and are ripped apart and strewn across trees. The song has a clear warning against extremism and also seems to indicate an anti-war sentiment. The video (and really the song too) are a bit over-dramatic, but I like them anyway.

Review:
Most of Embrace Your Dysfunction is a mix between a sort of dark electronica and an acoustic feel with cello. Really, cello just pervades the album all over, which perhaps is appropriate for a man who plays bass in two other bands. It's a rather different feeling than the general feel of Estranged, the album it accompanies. I don't really think the two are really supposed to be related – outside of the two remastered EP tracks and the live version of the title track, the two share little in common. I think the two deserve to be considered separate units (hence my reviewing them separately). Estranged has a certain theme of moving past a relationship, but this album has a variety of themes, mostly tied together under the general adjective "dark" (perhaps in part due to the prominence of the cello).

I haven't heard the rest of the Mess Up and Guitar Man EPs, so I don't really know what those songs sound like (although I've heard a radio session version of "The Auteur"), but the two remasters from the Mess Up EP presented here are both of high quality. They sound like outtakes from Estranged that just didn't fit the mood or theme. The covers are mostly simple arrangements, but they all work well, and they fit with J's personality, wit, and style well. The remakes are both interesting alternate takes of classic J songs. The new songs are a little bit weaker on average, just because "Sorrow Sleeps at Night" goes on a bit too long and "Tell Me, Henry Kissinger" is a bit too dark and biting without remorse (although that isn't necessarily a bad thing). "Trees in Silence Sing", though, is a great dedication to 9/11 without getting too heroic or sappy, and I really like the imagery of musical reference parts.

Embrace Your Dysfunction is considered just a limited edition bonus album to Estranged, but I think it's nearly as good and stands well on it's own, especially since it has its own sound (and is even credited to David J's Cabaret Oscuro instead of just David J). Since J recently found an unsold box of the album, I recommend purchasing one while supplies last (go to http://www.davidjonline.com/ and click on "store merchandise"); they're only $10 (plus shipping). And while you're at it, go to J's Myspace page (http://www.myspace.com/davidjonline) every month to listen to his "Tracks from the Attic", old outtakes and demos that have never found release. There's usually three a month, one of which can be downloaded. I think he should gather them all together and release them officially, but hey, a dream's a dream and I know it took a lot of effort for J to release Estranged and Embrace Your Dysfunction. [Edit 2014.06.18: Physical copies of Embrace Your Dysfunction are long since unavailable, but the album can be downloaded digitally from Bandcamp. Also note that the Tracks from the Attic were discontinued long ago and are now apparently forgotten and unavailable.]

Score: B+

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