Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Everest Ruin - Operationalization (2011)

Artist: The Everest Ruin
Album: Operationalization
Released: 10 July 2011
Label: Self-released (via bandcamp)
Producer: Brad Schumacher (Oo-De-Lally Audio) and Joshua N. King

Tracklisting:
01. A Tribute to My Independence
02. 8 Minutes to 11:30
03. Show Me How to Dance
04. Missouruh
05. The Good Book
06. When the Cattle Sleep
07. Eric
08. Baby Steps
09. The Fairest Maid
10. Beautiful Brown Eyes
11. Life Emulates Decay Emulates Life
12. There Once Was Love
13. Ticonderoga Wood
14. I Am a Crazy Person (80% About a Cat) [hidden track]
15. Being a Ghost Train
16. Pete's First Drink @ The Place 2 B
17. I Know How You Feel, Dustin Hoffman
18. By(e,) God [live 2008 in Shanghai] [bonus video]

Yes, as stated before in my review of the last time I saw him perform in my area, I know the musician behind The Everest Ruin personally and professionally. That isn't going to stop me from reviewing his new album as long as you trust that I can evaluate the music reasonably objectively. No matter what, though, I usually write about music that already means something to me, so of course I'm inclined to tell a story and try to convince you that you should listen to the music yourself. So if I write a positive review, what's the difference in providing free marketing for an artist I don't know personally versus one I do? In this case, at least I can tell some stories that might not be publicly available elsewhere!

Now that that's out of the way – where should I begin? Perhaps at the beginning. The album opens appropriately with "A Tribute to My Independence". Even if the track itself is not that special, it introduces the scene perfectly. The Everest Ruin is an independent musician, Josh King, working with an independent producer, Brad Schumacher, and using an independent distribution platform. The indie label goes beyond the logistics; this is not a predictable album and for a musician that is ostensibly a singer-songwriter, Josh throws many punches that put himself far outside the realm of your standard solo acoustic guitarist.

This independence is a credit and a risk. However, those labels do not apply in a predictable pattern: for example, for being indie, the production on the album is complex and nuanced. Brad lends his touch all over the album, sometimes delicately and sometimes deliberately. You can feel it in the vast space of songs like "There Once Was Love" and in the vocals of songs such as "I Know How You Feel, Dustin Hoffman". Even without knowing that Brad and Josh have performed and recorded together in past bands, you can immediately detect how smoothly they work together. This fact becomes gradually more obvious as the album progresses. You can hear snippets of Brad's studio banter, and his voice and percussion on "The Place 2 B", and most notably, his noise compositions on "8 Minutes to 11:30" and "Being a Ghost Train". His measured but expansive soundscapes lend those tracks the core of their strength and power.

But this attitude also carries a certain danger. Even if the sonic quality is pristine, the performances are often imperfect. Josh defends this in an extended document released with the album, claiming that this is a more authentic presentation of his work. However, this will certainly be difficult topic for some listeners. For example, the "Shenandoah" solo in "Missourah" will throw some for a loop, and the improvised nature of "Show Me How to Dance" means that it does falter at points.

But in a way, it works. It may be distracting, but it is funny to hear Brad shout "keep going!" after Josh misses a note. And the sloppy rhythm and guitarwork of "The Place 2 B" does, after all, fit the theme of the song. Perhaps there is a master plan, even if part of it is simply grounded in playfulness. Consider the almost obnoxiously ridiculous drum machine and sound effects of "Baby Steps" – it is clear that Josh knows the song is over-the-top, but whether it is in jest or not, some element of it remains valid.

Compare this to the subtle sigh at the start of "Eric", one of the most beautiful and sincere songs on the album, apparently written about an old friend from Josh's hometown. Eric is Josh's friend, not mine, and I don't think I've ever met him, but this song makes me feel like I know him well, and it reminds of people I miss in entirely different contexts. It was someone's decision to leave that sigh in the recording, but it actually fits the tone perfectly.

The playful aspect permeates the album in many places. "The Good Book" and "Ticonderoga Wood" are really stories set to music, and although they might not have the same relistenability as other songs, they are hilarious stories. These works may thrive best in the live setting, but these are good recordings. Similarly, "Life Emulates Decay Emulates Life" is a bleak view of post-collegiate life, but it is also quite funny – to the point that I almost break out laughing every time I hear the tease of "1979" shortly after Josh sings, "half-heartedly regurgitating lines that are over twelve years old". (The W-2 bit is a close second favorite line.)

Then there are the songs that have essentially no trace of humor, irony, or playfulness. Sometimes it feels almost like a different performer. The majestic, dramatic "Being a Ghost Train" is sandwiched between two fairly absurd songs. The melodramatic "When the Cattle Sleeps" is an honest consideration of life after a lost love, and who cares if a couple notes are a touch off. And then there's the seriously impressive solo bass on "Beautiful Brown Eyes".

There are two forces at work on this album. One is a more pure, serious craft of songwriting, complete with strong melodies and careful arrangements. The other is a somewhat loose, jocular style of storytelling, featuring great lengths of absurdism and dramatic gestures. Both are important to Josh, or else he wouldn't alternate between these extremes so quickly – or blend them together, as with "I Know How You Feel, Dustin Hoffman". For fans of one or the other, I'd fear that the other half would get tedious, but despite my first impressions, I have to admit that somehow it works. It's hard to only like one side or the other, and they end up complementing each other far more than imbalancing them. (Except for "I Am a Crazy Person" – that one's really only for the hardcore.)

And this is certainly the first album I've ever bought that includes not just 14 pages of lyrics but also 5 dense pages of what amounts to essays about the background of the music. It's a good read, but far more than most musicians ever care to write!

Score: B+

P.S. There are a hundred little extra things I could say about this album – funny passages, stories I know personally, musical trivia, and so on – but it is probably better for you to find it on your own. A few good listens reveal a lot.

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