Album Review by Mark Bayross
Real World Records is known for its roster of exotic and unusual sounds from around the globe, so Joseph Arthur’s music stands out from the label’s usual fayre. No Amazonian tribes or chanting bhuddists here. Instead, we have an album of raw folk that’s as simple as it is beautiful. After all, this may well be as much the sound of the “real” America as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the sound of the “real” Asia.
This is the New Yorker’s second album – co-produced by T-Bone Burnett (Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, Wallflowers). For the uninitiated, Joseph Arthur is one of those artists who is so multi-talented it makes the rest of us mere mortals sick – not only is he a singer-songwriter, but he also writes, sculpts and paints (evidence of this can be seen on his award-winning record covers). He may still consider this impressive canon below par – he makes a brief appearance in the movie “Hell’s Kitchen”, for which…why am I not surprised…he also wrote the score.
Opener IN THE SUN has a sepia-tinged hue similar to the country-rock of Mercury Rev or the more reflective moments of Screaming Trees. It’s followed by the lament of ASHES EVERYWHERE, its harmonica evoking the slow-motion mood at the end of THE JOSHUA TREE. This mood changes a little with the mildly druggy CHEMICAL, which is also the first single – a strange choice as its shimmering effects and Beach Boys harmonies make more sense here, in the context of the album.
HISTORY is superb: a burst of noise and samples leads into a strummed melody, with the wracked voice of the verse blossoming into a rousing, electrified chorus. It is good enough to remind me of The God Machine. By way of contrast, INVISIBLE HANDS has a real ghost-in-the-machine feel, as an unnerving mesh of slide guitar, ambient noises and a faint harmonica in the background do as much to unsettle as the whispered vocals.
Female vocals add an extra element to COCKROACH, a simple enough hate-ditty with some killer lines: “And still you can never admit / That maybe you could have prevented destruction / As it came out of your very core / My friend you are starting to become a bore.” After the rush of melodic guitar of EXHAUSTED comes EYES ON MY BACK, another haunting ballad with some funereal effects that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Tom Waits’ classic “Bone Machine”. It’s a point of reference that re-appears later with the suicidally bleak THE REAL YOU, although this time it’s more of a stripped-down, percussive Tom Waits feel.
The punky panic of CREATION OR A STAIN leads into the predictably beautiful closing track SPEED OF LIGHT – you don’t end albums like this any other way. It’s a touching end to a stunning album, ending with the repeated “Living at the speed of light / burning your love on the way / burning your love away” and fading to black.
It seems odd to me that Joseph Arthur is little known – hopefully that will change soon. This album shows what a fantastic songwriter he is, and his singing at times has an ability to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. It’s a performance that veers from Mark Lanegan to Tom Waits to Kurt Cobain and, unsurprising considering the Real World connection, Peter Gabriel at times.
In this time of music-as-product, when talentless half-wit copyists like Oasis can still shift records by the truckload, it is encouraging to see that young talent can still find an audience. I recommend you buy this album and join that audience.