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(independent release As broadcast on WVIA-FM 11/2/2011)
When I listen to new music, what probably excites me most is originality and eclecticism, taking diverse elements and mixing them in creative ways, and generally avoiding the cliches. But I have always had a soft spot for well-executed pop -- music that raises familiar styles to a high level often through adding sophisticated musical ingredients in deceptive ways. The latter-day Beatles were the personification of that -- they make tunes you could go around humming but with plenty of imaginative quirks with sonic or musical surprises. Since then, there have been generations of bands who have continued that tradition, most not nearly as popular as the Fab Four, like XTC, the short-lived Merchants of Venus, and more recently Fountains of Wayne. They are groups who, while they don't necessarily sound like the Beatles, embody the idea of music with an ostensibly wide-appeal sound packed with a degree of cleverness or musical complexity that seems at odds with the idea of simple pop.
This week we have another very good example. It's a Minneapolis-based band called 9 Tomorrows, and their new CD is called Gravity in Love. And like some other such groups who go in for this approach, there is a recording studio junkie who plays a prominent role. In the case of 9 Tomorrows, it's David Kellogg. He is a multi-instrumentalist who while playing in bands ended up getting a job in a studio in Madison, Wisconsin, where he felt he had found his calling. He attended the University of Wisconsin and studied with jazz bassist Richard Davis who let him do his senior thesis on sound production. After graduation Kellogg returned home to Minneapolis and was able to open his own studio, and has worked with a lot of artists in diverse styles along the way. He also spent some time in the Caribbean and hooked up with veteran reggae artist Beres Hammond.
So a lot of stylistic elements came together when he formed his band 9 Tomorrows, along with an appreciation for melodic pop. The result is an album that not only is impressive as pop at a high level, but also is surprisingly eclectic without sounding that way. There is a healthy slice of reggae influence on several tracks, along with a bit of synthesizer pop, some mellow sounds involving nylon string acoustic guitar and even some a cappella moments.
The rest of 9 Tomorrows are vocalist Dax Young, who is one of the group's strongest assets. He has a very appealing high tenor, just the kind of sound for melodic pop. Also on guitar is Steven Helvig and the bassist is Jai Bowie, whose father is a prominent bluegrass banjo player. The group has since added a keyboard player and drummer for live performances, but the CD consists mainly of the four, with Kellogg handling guitar, keyboards, drums and drum programming. Kellogg also wrote all the material, which is first-rate throughout. While occasionally a track might sound like bits of unrelated fragments of songs stuck together, generally, each tune has enough variety and often with interesting transitions, that it makes for great listening. It's an album that won't get tedious, with so many different sounds, styles and textures. Lyrically, the material is mostly a collection of love songs and not the most innovative facet of the album, but one almost can't go wrong with Dax Young's vocals singing those lyrics.
The generous 14-track CD opens with one of its reggae-influenced pieces, Levity, which contains the phrase that serves as the CD's title. <<>>
Also drawing on reggae for inspriation is Walk Through the Door which is likewise nicely handled. Just to make things interesting there is a little non-reggae-like accordion in the instrumentation. <<>>
One of the most interesting stylistic mixtures is a track called Karma Too, which takes a very different direction with a kind of synthesizer pop texture but it's much more interesting than your typical synth pop song. <<>>
9 Tomorrows further underscores their eclectic bent on a piece called Enough for Two. Here the band gets a bit atmospheric with a hint of Latin-influenced guitar which contrasts with the old fashioned rock sections of the chorus. <<>>
The band gets into what sounds like art rock territory on Tomorrow Today Is Yesterday, which opens with a nice a cappella section <<>> before the band alternates between a kind of progressive rock sound and parts that hint of U2's "big rock" approach. <<>>
While 9 Tomorrows is strong on upbeat tunes, there are a couple of more laid back tracks. Morning Light almost sounds like a sad folk song with mostly just guitar accompaniment. <<>> Before it builds momentum. <<>>
For me about the only track that falls a bit short is Let It Go, another reggae-influenced song. This time the band just gets too much into the pop cliches. <<>>
But another definite highlight of the CD is Slip On By, one of the more multifaceted pieces in which the songs' various disparate sections fit together to make a little suite. <<>> The song is continued on as a reprise following the CD's last track. <<>>
Gravity in Love the new first full-length CD by the Minnesota band 9 Tomorrows is one of those masterfully executed albums that combines an outwardly appealing pop sound, with downright interesting music and creative arranging. Dax Young's vocals are instantly likable, and composer and multi-instrumentalist David Kellogg generates creative admixtures of mostly familiar sounds, but assembled in imaginative ways, combining reggae, bits of progressive rock, synthesizer pop, a folky sound and a bunch of other influences. And speaking of progressive rock, the CD is put together rather like a concept album, with the tracks tightly spaced, one leading into the other, with a kind of prelude and a reprise for a couple of songs, and the track order is well-thought out with the music flowing well, while keeping it stylistically diverse. About the only thing that I found a bit lacking was the dependence on sequenced drum tracks. Now the band is performing with a real drummer, so perhaps the next recording will add that increased level of depth.
Our judgment on sound quality is close to, but not fully, a grade "A." David Kellogg did a very good job mixing the recording, capturing the sonic variety of the instrumentation. The dynamic range is fair for this kind of music; it's not too badly compressed but the CD doesn't really shimmer like some of the best of such sophisticated pop albums.
In a way, eclectic pop might seem like an oxymoron. But 9 Tomorrows' new CD Gravity in Love is good example of achieving both qualities well.
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