JAIMIE VERNON – CLEVER HAS A NAME: JAMES CLARK INSTITUTE
We’re in an interesting transitional period with music. Not the industry part that I’ve frequently beaten up and kicked to the curb time and time again. No, I’m talking about musical direction. I had hoped upon hope that post-9/11 the singer-songwriter would make a massive mainstream comeback to usher in the silver age of thinking man’s music. To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. The simpletons in charge of what we listen to doubled down on the stupid with the vacant tap dancing and lip-syncing of nubile females, effeminate boy bands and reality stars-turned-prime-time-embarrassments. ‘American Idol’ was the new A & R department for the future of music.
It was the millennial equivalent to calorie-free 1950s crooners and Beach Blanket boffing. 4th of July, cotton candy and bra-padding as entertainment. Back then The Beatles came along, thank God, and shook up the puzzle pieces and when the music was re-assembled it became unearthly, unrecognizable and untouchable. And here we are, 20 years after the musical upheaval called Grunge celebrating Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ as the last great musical anarchy. They burned the template to the ground except, unlike the Beatles, there was no rebuilding process. There was no one replanting the trees – twisted, vibrant, psychotropic trees. Nothing. Green Day gave it a great shot with ‘American Idiot’ – a concept album distraction in an era of frivolous Neilson Soundscan competitors. But it was art for chart’s sake.
So we sit and wait for the next musical innovation. Hip-hop and EDM had their brief shining moments, but everyone’s dancing around the shrines of the past and keep throwing out the back beat with the bath water. Pop songs now have no solos, no middle 8’s or snare drums. I’ve been listening to the unholy splooge that’s been oozing out of pop radio during my current driving gig and there is literally no groove. Not a single beat to attach your feet, or your fanny, to. It’s someone screaming out a chant over and over with an, admittedly, mesmerizing melodic hook. The “song” is either on or it’s off while this chant plays out. The off part is a cappella, the on part introduces a drum loop. That’s it. There is no tension and the song doesn’t go anywhere. It’s like you’ve entered a section of highway, gotten slowed down by traffic, then hit an open patch, then hit more traffic. No bumps. No turns. No curves. No lane changes. Just constipation with the occasional release of gas. At the end of the five minutes of innocuous ear fungus you wonder to yourself “What the hell was the point of that?” Why did someone write this? Why didn’t someone stop them from writing it? Or recording it?
Musical wallpaper has its purpose – elevators, doctors’ offices, shopping malls, funeral homes. Places where you want to offend the least amount of patrons in a commercial environment. The spate of current wallpaper being napalmed into public spaces is bloated, bilious, self-important and way too precious. It isn’t clever because you say it is. It actually has to be clever.
Clever has a name. Clever is Canadian. Musicians like Blair Packham, The Odds and The Pursuit of Happiness embody it with self-deprecating acerbic wit and insight. Add to that list the latest member of the clever Canadian music club: James Clark – who records as The James Clark Institute. I’ve known him a very long time dating back to his earliest solo demo tapes which I reviewed in Great White Noise magazine going back 25 years (pre-Grunge!!).
These early works were adventurous, hit-or-miss explorations of musical genres. But I could always hear the pop sensibilities between the musical quirkiness. James clearly heard it and felt it too because his 2004 EP “Home Is Where The Heart Attack Is” was a singer-songwriter exploration of melody and pop music pedigree. There was something distinctly Lennon & McCartney, Crowded House and TPOH about his new approach. 2008’s “Sideshow Unattraction” explored and expanded even further giving the James Clark Institute not just a sound…but a distinct style. He was clearly coming into his own.
Another EP – ‘Son of a Sideshow’ – and a 7” single “Company Hearse/I Don’t Leave The Radio On Anymore” have come in regular increments. The latter being a launch point for the JCI’s newest album release: “Yesterday’s Misadventures”. The album is a modest 33 minute bus ride into the mind of James Clark. “From the 30 second intro, telling of my father’s prize fighting career, to the last song dealing with my mother’s struggles with Alzheimer’s, every song on this record concerns my personal adventures and misadventures.”
Add to this the production work of that other clever guy, Moe Berg (TPOH), and a few production extras from John Dinsmore (Kathleen Edwards) and Garry Flint (National Velvet) and you’ve got the revival of a genre long though dead – power pop. You remember Power Pop don’t you? It involves the finer aspects of bands like The Beatles, The Kinks, The Who, Badfinger, The Raspberries, Squeeze and Cheap Trick among others. TPOH kept it alive during the 1980s as did the Smithereens. With the exception of Fastball in the 1990s it’s been pushed underground. JCI have revived it and dusted it off with aplomb and colour.
“Martin and Lewis” takes us right into jangly guitar territory with a boppy mandatory 3-minute pop masterpiece about the Dean Martin’s and Jerry Lewis’ relationship as metaphor for all of us – including the narrator. The clever shows itself in referencing pop culture as its own antidote for serendipitous nostalgia. James Clark likes to visit it, he just doesn’t want to live there.
“The Devil’s Punchbowl” is the first single and a straight up Beatles-psych entreaty. “You can’t go wrong with a mellotron,” as my buddy Terry Draper of Klaatu used to say. Do we drink from the devil’s punchbowl? Do we resist temptation? The devil may or may not be in details. There’s also a great video accompanying it.
“As I Recall”, “Long Time Coming” and “Monica’s Harmonica” immediately remind the listener that the Todd Rungren/TPOH approach to pop is nestled in the 1965/1966 era of post-Dylan electric folk. In other words, this is the Beatles without the British stoicism and The Byrds without all the Rickenbacker guitars. These tunes are clearly stamped with James Clark’s watermark but they have the fingerprints of so many others on them. For Power Pop fans it will become a case of ‘spot the influence’ and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
“I Don’t Leave the Radio On Anymore” refers to the passing of Clark’s 17-year companion and treasured pet cat. We can relate to leaving the radio on for little mittens each time we’d have to leave them alone in the house for awhile. Add to that Clark’s John Lennon balladry approach (circa ‘Imagine’/’Mind Games’) and you’ve got a heart-breaking ode to tabbies everywhere.
“Company Hearse” deals with the feeling that life may be passing one by and that getting stuck driving the family’s company car for a funeral home might not be the best use of one’s yet-to-be-fulfilled future. The song could easily be a dark, twisted lament by Nick Lowe or Hamilton’s Dave Rave.
“Charlie Schulz Was Always In Love” puts Clark in a sad-sack mood not unlike artist Charles Schulz whose characters – specifically Charlie Brown – was the metaphorical lonely heart of comic strips. Clark uses drawing metaphors to identify with Schulz himself who painted the world through cartoon bubbles as Clark does with his music. The song is very subtle on the surface but very clever underneath.
“Dorothy”, the final track on the CD, is a standout in that it’s absolutely unlike anything else on the album. A poignant ballad about Clark’s mother and her battle with Alzheimers. An honest portrait by a man coming to grips with mortality through the eyes of his mother’s memories – the current ones and the ones soon to be lost. A heartbreaking love song that shot this jaded old music scribe right between the eyes. Bless you, Mrs. Clark, you live on in the clever words of a master songwriter. http://clarkeinstitute.com
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon