by Ryan SetteeWhen I was younger, I'd always thought that the truly great artists got on the radio and MTV and had earned the mass popularity and acclaim. I think that most people sort of came from the same mindset. Obviously when you're younger, everything seems pretty new and exciting and it's easy to start to believe that the most popular artists are the best ones, because they're the ones that catch on with the most people. But sometimes, the industry just doesn't actually go the way that it should in theory.
Jason Falkner always seemed destined for superstardom. Here you have a guy that's played the industry game, but with his integrity and credentials intact. Who knows why he isn’t well known as he should be? He's always had a knack for great hooks--imagine a combination of The Beatles, Elvis Costello, ELO and Joe Jackson--usually approaching the vintage New Wave-y '79-'82 sound. Image-wise, he's always had the "power shag" ‘60's mod thing going and a keen dress sense (though bordering on way over the top for the Jellyfish days--striped boots, as well as full leather attire in the liners of "Can You Still Feel?" in the later years, etc). I suppose that sort of image has never been marketable, but maybe it was or is seen as far too retro. I can see that. I think that as music gets more and more plundered and seeing as that we're many generations of music into popular music, inevitably I think that there will be a few casualties in the "resurrectionists" scene… perceived by people as trying too hard to resurrect a time and atmosphere that, admittedly, they're influenced by, rather than having lived through that era. There's always a love/ hate thing with where we're from, I think--but you have to embrace the extremes of those aspects to get at something really enlightening and transcendent.
Similarly, Falkner probably generates hidden bias that the listener isn't even aware of---the notion or expectation that someone from the U.S. can't possibly really have nailed Anglophile pop. He's not from a land far, far away, and it's probably easy to take what he does for granted (his success in Japan would likely coincide with "the grass is always greener" effect), you know, just some dude churning out jangly pop. I guess that Falkner's modus operandi for wanting to do straight up power pop (a slightly lazy and misleading term for his music, but used here for simplicity's sake) is perceived by casual listeners as mining some sort of obvious influence or trend. But really, power pop is something that's never really been that fashionable--just think of the biggest casualty: Big Star. It's perceived as innocuous, but really, pop can be some of the most unassumingly deceptive music in where it sounds simple, but I think that the people that like that genre--like me--catch onto the deeper side of it. Often on the surface level, pop sounds like all happy and good time stuff, but to me, there's usually been a dark, violent undercurrent to pop albums. Even in Pet Sounds, there's sort of a youthful naivety to it that sounds like bubblegum and lollipops and bicycle bells, but considering how Brian Wilson would end up, I don't think that the record is as innocuous as it would indicate.
The saying goes that "good leaders were once good followers". With that said, Falkner has definetely paid his dues, and has a pretty storied and respectable career before he launched his solo career. He started off in The Three O'Clock (signed to Prince's Paisley Park label in the late ‘80's). In the early 1990's, he played in Jellyfish in the earliest incarnation and on the Bellybutton album, and was told that it would be a democratic process; however, it became clear that his contributions were being edged out in the Andy Sturmer/Roger Manning Jr. axis, so he'd had enough of it and left the band. After that, he'd played on Eric Matthews' albums and guested on various people's albums, then played in The Grays. Unfortunately for Falkner, once again the situation in The Grays mirrored the circumstances in Jellyfish in that it suffered from having too many talented and creative minds in the band, with too little of an available platform in which to express his particular vision. His earliest demos--witnessed on Necessity: The 4-Track Years and Everyone Says It's On (both with an overlap of some of the same tracks)--can attest to the fact that he'd stockpiled tons of songs and ideas that facilitated him needing to helm his own creative ship. Even in the earliest stages of his solo career, it's clear that the vision was definetely there--though it's unsure as to what was written at what point, and for what bands he'd had those songs or ideas for. But even those demos and his worst songs have a personality and endearingness to their style that's hard to deny.
Some of those demos ended up being re-recorded for Falkner's first album from 1996, Presents Author Unknown, and he also has a habit of re-demoing or re-re-demoing things--"My Home Is Not A House", which dates back at least to 1995 or 1996, was re-done for 2009's Japanese release version of All Quiet On The Noise Floor. Falkner does everything himself--the vocals, drums, guitars, bass, piano, keys, sounds--and on top of that, he produces, records and mixes his own material. And better yet, he sounds like an actual full band, and his own productions (mind you, with an intentional ‘70's production sheen) rival the quality of many mega budget albums. Sometimes though, with all the demos and alternate versions and mixes, I wonder if Falkner's own worst enemy isn't himself--perfecting things until they take on a totally different rendition or feel, where you get the impression that maybe he's almost like the guy on the Peanuts that bangs his head on the piano in self hatred, "Oh Beethoven, I've FAILED you!!" But one also gets the impression that his self performed gems are out of necessity; maybe he's so hard on himself with his quality standards that it would inevitably be tougher to tell others that they didn't make the cut on that track. Judging by the results, nothing escapes scrutiny--everything there has a reason, a purpose. If he's putting on 20 tracks of vocals for a pseudo-ELO cosmic vocal effect, it's most likely for a good reason.
Part of Falkner's possible downfall in his career has maybe been that his albums are always diverse, and I think that he falls into the same category as other acts like Sloan--they do so many things so well, but they probably don't do them long enough for the average listener to really, really connect with them past a song or two. Falkner's first album from 1996 (also my first purchase in his catalogue), Presents Author Unknown is susceptible to that- on first listen, songs like "I Live" and "She Goes To Bed" really connected with me as smart pop songs. I guess those are the "singles" type songs from that album--most likely they had that intention, seeing as that JJ Puig (big mega producer/mixer) had only mixed those two songs on that record. I'm not really sure why the others didn't leap out at me at first, but they certainly did on subsequent listens, and for different reasons, different moods--the swirly psychedelia intro to "….Nobody Knows" was a detour, as was the gentle acoustics of "Before My Heart Attacks.”
The second album--1999's Nigel Godrich produced Can You Still Feel? -- sort of hit me the same way: the singles stuff grabbed me first ("Author Unknown"--in the seemingly Zep fashion of putting a song on the ensuing album that's clearly a title from an earlier album), but it was the slower songs that reeled me in on repeated listens. "Revelation" is kind of an odd choice to put as song 2, but the spooky and shimmering feel on the track works well. Inititally, I thought that songs like "My Lucky Day" and "Holiday" were too New Wave--lots of squiggly synth lines in the vein of The Cars--but I love them now. The Zeppelin-esque bombast of "All God's Creatures" seemed a bit out of place as well (as did the massive Floyd Cramer piano solo in the middle section), but those are the sorts of things that make those records such a satisfying listen. The dreary, spooky atmosphere of "I Already Know" where the subdued verses led into the gigantic heavy crescendo in the chorus, is balanced with "See You Again"; a sunny, optimistic slower song that has lots of feel good atmospherics and droning textures.
Then after the first two major label Elektra albums---there was nothing for 5 years (an eternity in the music world), until the Bliss Descending EP, which admittedly still is a tad underwhelming. It's 5 songs after five years, and considering the amount of material that Falkner stockpiles (as evidenced by the Third Album that was floating around the Internet of all his demos and works in progress, with almost none of those songs have surfaced on a proper album yet), one gets the impression that Falkner just thought that most of his material otherwise wasn't good enough. It took him until 2008 (in Japan, anyways--2010 in North America) to release the actual follow-up to Can You Still Feel? in the album I'm Ok, You're Ok. That's 9 years. It wasn't without purpose, though, he'd stated in his liner notes from I'm Ok, You're Ok:
"A few years back I had a version of this record done but found myself almost beaten down by what I perceived to be a lack of interest from the music biz"
One could understand that coming off the Elektra deal and working with producers like Nigel Godrich and appearing in some well-regarded capacity (gear and producer magazines, etc), that having been let go from the label and thrust into a position where it became extremely difficult to find proper North American labels---even indie labels--had to have been a huge blow to the ego. But obviously, he was let go from Elektra for a reason--the albums just didn't sell well enough. Elektra had been criticized for not promoting the album very well. I think that there's merit to that accusation, because really, I had only ever read one review of Can You Still Feel? at the time. Between that great review, and someone playing "She Goes To Bed" on a local campus radio station. I'm not sure if I would have ever otherwise heard of the guy. And I can't blame the average person for not hearing of Falkner; you simply can't like something that you've never even heard about. But i've never met a casual Falkner fan--they're HUGE fans when you come across them. You know that the other person just totally understands. It's like this alternate language that you don't have to bother learning or decoding.
I suppose if one were to get more specific, technically there was a Falkner full-length in that 9 years if you count non-original songs--the Bedtime With The Beatles release on Sony in 2001, an album of Fabs songs done in a stripped down, instrumental lullaby version. It sounds ridiculous on paper, but surprisingly, it works--the covers are faithful to the spirit of the originals ("The Long And Winding Road," though, becomes a real tear jerker). A Bedtime With The Beatles 2 album was released in 2008, with the endorsement from Sir Paul: "I very much enjoyed the first 'Bedtime With The Beatles' and wish Jason all the best with this follow-up. It certainly works - it put me to sleep." I believe that the songs on the second installment had to clear some sort of legal red tape in licencing or something like that; that they couldn't be cleared for release for the first time around.
As of the date of writing this article in 2010, Falkner has released another great album in late 2009 (Japan only release), All Quiet On The Noise Floor, which is perhaps his most consistently energetic powerpop album that sheds a few of the detours in favour of straight ahead material (as well as a cover of Bebop Deluxe's "Jet Silver And The Dolls of Venus"). In the last few years leading up to the release of the last couple of albums, he's played with Beck, played with Air, done some work with McCartney and has got McCartney's own praise. But it's obvious that he would rather do his own thing. Maybe there's not the mass accolades and maybe there's no longer the major label deal and maybe the prospects of "making it" to some sort of mega star status that had eluded him are finished, but there's something satisfying in creative freedom in not following and just doing it your own way. Popularity only means so much in the end, in and of itself.
Also see Jason Falkner's website
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