For a man who has spent most of his career as a saxophonist, composer and producer in more avant-garde and psychedelic circles, Always All Around You seems to follow some classic and conformist lines. Not that that is in anyway a bad thing, of course it isn’t, the very definition of the term classic is an “outstanding example of a particular style; something of lasting worth or with a timeless quality” and that also tends to imply accessibility, familiarity and working in comfort zones. This second album sees Norman Salant adopting the mantle of acoustic guitar slinging, singer-songwriter, one who neatly treads a path that the likes of Paul Simon, James Taylor and Neil Young have left their sonic footprints on.
Eclectic is the word that easily applies itself to Bill Mullarky sumptuous and comprehensive debut album but unlike many who seem content to play to their record collection and try to revive a music scene or re-create a bygone sound, here he weaves those older musical strands into interesting new patterns. Stare at these brave and subtle new designs and you will eventually pick out the various strands and musical colours that he used to weave it. The vibrant reds of new wave, the subtle pastel hues of dreamy psychedelia, the palatable greens of pop and the prominent elemental blue of strange folk experimentations.
On first listen you may be forgiven for assuming that this is an album to be filed in the freak, acid-folk purist drawer, and yes there is a lot of 70’s Haight-Ashbury, re-appropriated folk sounds and west coast psychedelic vibes running through the songs, but by the second or third time around you will realise that for the most part this is fantastically subversive world pop with songs such as So I’ll Go reminiscent of Paul Simon’s Graceland’s period. At it’s sweetest it wanders into James Taylors commercial folk territory, at its weirdest it gives the likes of Talking Heads a run for their money, it throws around old blues licks and re-invents alt-country making it strangely both more country and more alt at the same time.
It does feel like Bill has put all his eclectic eggs in one basket here, thankfully charm and quirk act as a cohesive force and the wandering nature of the musical thought processes is smoothed over accordingly. It does make you wonder what he will follow this album up with, it could (and surely will) go literally anywhere, and I for one can’t wait.
I have a few “go to” words when writing reviews, some probably much over used but they have served me well. Ethereal crops up a lot, as does subversive. Mercurial is also one of my favourites, but after encountering a musician who’s curriculum vitae is the very definition of the word, I think I may have to stop using it so freely. Why mercurial? Well, anyone who has recorded with Death Grip’s Zach Hill and Sondre Lerche, has opened for Tame Impala, played guitar on Paul Simon’s new record, who hops genre and styles at a whim and does it all whilst bearing a passing resemblance to a late 70’s Johnny Thunders is someone who surely epitomises the word.
Musically the album soaks up vibes from across time and distance, slick 80’s laced grooves mix with more experimental creations, world music references are pulled into very American pop-rock and generic divides are completely ignored. The album does have a few hurdles for the listener to get over though, in that there are no vocals on the album yet the songs are generally short and rhythmically based. This means that they are neither traditionally songlike nor cinematically expansive, put another way, they often lack the immediate punch but neither do they wander into more languid territories where the musicality can be more fully explored.
That said, art is about challenge and once you get your ear in there is a lot of clever and original rewards to be had and just as some music delivers immediately, some requires more dedication, trust and patience. Maybe the down side of having a mercurial nature is that your direction can often seem unfocused rather than exploratory. Discuss.