The bliss of pop culture ignorance

Posted: Thursday, September 23, 2010

I was recently chided for my lack of familiarity with Casey Kasem, a radio personality and voice actor who apparently influenced much of America during his nearly 60-year career. For those who also don't know, Kasem is most popular for his role as Shaggy in the "Scooby-Doo" cartoon and as host of the "American Top 40" radio countdown show - he told America what to listen to.

My ignorance to Kasem's existence could possibly be attributed to my age. During the peak of his career, I was busy making stop-motion Playmobil films and dressing up my highly tolerant cats in costumes - being a kid, basically. But I'd like to think that my unawareness of Kasem's reach is due to the way I was brought up to experience the world.

I grew up without cable TV; in its stead, I clung to public broadcasting, the daily news and my local library as my main sources of what was hip and happening at the time. Ask me about LeVar Burton, the Mario Bros. or Bill Watterson's comics, and we'll have something on which to base our conversation. But when it comes to most items of the '80s and '90s mainstream, I've always been pretty removed, clueless when it comes to trivia.

Fast forward to present day. I'll admit, the Internet has enhanced the way that we experience pop culture. It's more difficult to opt-out of marketing messages. Nonetheless, I've found that I still embrace many of the anti-influence habits from my childhood as an adult. I don't much value television - at least not enough to pay for it. I quickly tired of Facebook, and my MySpace page sits dormant, all its direct marketing going to waste.

I don't seem to have trouble following the news of the local music scene, but when it comes to national and world music, it's easy to fall behind. I often don't learn of new releases from artists I think I'm following until well after used copies of the CD are available on Amazon for a penny plus shipping.

Subsequently, I'm forced from time to time to go on the hunt for some new-to-me music to add to my library. Sometimes a friend will supply a much-appreciated tip, but last week I decided to do some digging of my own in unknown territory, not sure of what I'd find. I tossed aside handfuls of mediocre titles, but four albums stood out that I deemed worthy of mention. For all I know, they may already be famous, winning awards and appearing on billboards across the nation. But to me they are simply a breath of fresh, musical air.

Paul Curreri, "California"

I have large respect for the album as an art form, and it's my guess that Paul Curreri does, too. Even from first listen, it's clear that this 2009 release has a clearly constructed beginning, middle and end. The album starts moderately and modestly with "Now I Can Go On," and things really start to warm up by track two, "Once Upon A Rooftop," in which Curreri's fancy, yet accessible guitar work begins to fly, accompanying his comforting vocals.

While it is cohesive as a whole, each piece in "California" has a different attitude. Some feel like the desert, some allude to the cowboy on the cover, and some make me get all existential. My favorite by far is the title track, "California," for its simplicity and equally for its technical complexity. The song is stripped down to fingerstyle guitar and vocals, and it is composed in a way that really gets inside of me. It makes me want to play music too, and that's one of the highest compliments I can give to any musician. But I have one complaint: I wish so much that the song would just end, rather than simply fading out - what a buzz kill.

Shayfer James, "The Owl & The Elephant"

This album is fun from the get-go, with a drum roll and bold piano chords beginning track one, "Life Is Beautiful." Lyrically, the song picks up somewhere near the climax of an adventure story in which the heroes are about to find their way to safety after having just faced some sort of perilous situation. The piano base continues throughout the album, accompanied by all manner of instruments from strings to bells.

The tunes range from ballady to epic, most featuring narrative lyrics that tell gripping tales. The most dramatic, "Every Fallen Feather," evokes pictures in my mind of the characters being sung about. Its impassioned storyline is set to an emotive tune.

If you're not one for paying attention to lyrics, I bet you'll still appreciate this album's musical arrangements. Even if all the stories were sung in a foreign language, "The Owl & The Elephant" would still make for an enjoyable listening experience.

The Rescues, "Let Loose the Horses"

I'm not as instantly drawn to this album as the others reviewed in this column, but something about it keeps me from dismissing it entirely. The Rescues create an interesting sound, featuring both male and female vocals over a traditional rock band grouping of instruments - guitars with varying amounts as well as the absence of distortion, drums that reverberate as if in a stadium, punchy bass lines and occasional instrumental solos. But even with standard instrumentation, it's the arrangements in this album that stand out to me. The sound that is created ends up being a few steps above the typical, often predictable alt-pop stuff you see everywhere these days.

If you only want to spend a few dollars on this band, spend them on "Can't Stand The Rain," "The City And The River," "Stay Over" and "Stranger Keeper." Coincidently, these tracks are all located near the end of the album, where the best stuff usually hides.

Vincent Minor, "Vincent Minor"

By this point I'm way over my word limit, but I can't let this find go unmentioned. I have fond memories of listening to this album, even though I've only spun through it a few times. Officially released on Tuesday, this is Vincent Minor's debut album, and I eagerly hope this isn't the last that we will hear from him.

The music has a timeless feeling to it. It's also unassuming and natural. I picture Minor in his Los Angeles apartment, silencing the ring of his telephone as he composes piece after piece while hunched over his piano, all the while stylishly dressed.

The feeling I get from listening to this album reminds me of the fun I've had over the years listening to The Verve and Badly Drawn Boy, yet I hate to draw comparisons. "Vincent Minor" is unique, a mixed-media painting in a gallery full of black-and-white photographs. The album's tasteful integration of varying levels of orchestration into its songs is well-balanced; there's a lot going on all at once, but it all blends together to create one unit. With each listen of this album in the future, I foresee discovering something I never noticed before.

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