Hitting The Trunk Road: The Mystery Of Misty

In his solo career, John Lennon surely did not invent the concept of songwriting as an act of catharsis. He did, though, set out a template for how it could be done in the most effective manner possible. Delving deep within, Lennon dredged up painful memories and offered not-so-insignificant glimpses of insight into his psyche. While no one in their right mind would ever compare Fleet Foxes to The Beatles, Josh Tillman, the former’s former drummer does have the onus of a relatively famous band looming over his shoulder while he attempts to succeed on his own.

As if to make a clean break, Tillman adopted the moniker of Father John Misty, a baptismal of sorts for his new solo career. In Every Man Needs A Companion, the closing song of Fear Fun, Father John Misty’s stirring and compelling debut album, Tillman leisurely tosses off his own version of “I don’t believe in Beatles” by proclaiming that he never liked the name Joshua and got tired of J. It would be a startlingly heartbreaking revelation; if only you could be entirely sure that he meant it.

Despite the omnipresence of fulsome, rustic atmospherics (you may be able to take the drummer out of the Fleet Foxes but not the Fleet Foxes out of the drummer) and a measured infusion of tempered barroom country rock, Fear Fun is a surprisingly Hollywood album. However, the Hollywood depicted by Tillman owes more to Bret Easton Ellis’ vision of Tinseltown than The Great Ziegfeld. In novels like Less Than Zero and The Informers (as well as their East coast cousins Glamorama and The Rules of Attraction), Ellis documented the ennui and emotional vacuity of a seemingly lost generation of morally bankrupt, unempathetic children of privilege. Tillman taps into that same vein on Fear Fun, offering what, at times, amounts to a winking satire of those that harbor grandiose hopes and dreams while possessing no self-awareness of their own shortcomings. With acute perception and a dry wit, Tillman explores the same psychic territory as The Eagles, only with a more nuanced spin and much less piety.

Setting the Father John Misty appellation as a shield between himself and the audience, Tillman turns Fear Fun and the live offering of its songs into an impenetrable paradox of intent as it is wholly unclear whether he’s possessed with the utmost sincerity or dripping with acidic sarcasm. It’s entirely possible Tillman does not know the answer himself. On Fun Times In Babylon, when he sings the final refrain of “look out Hollywood, here I come” with a vapid melancholia, it’s purposely unclear whether he’s wearily embracing the optimism inherent to the clichéd pronouncement or slyly making an ironic observation of its insipidness. Witnessing Tillman perform the song live offers little insight: as he dances along to the song in a slightly exaggerated fashion, declaring that he’s caught up in the moment would be as valid a description as claiming that he’s mocking the whole concept of a singer dancing to his own music. The enigmatic contradictions don’t end there. On Well You Can Do It Without Me, Tillman’s brashly critical of ambition but on Now I’m Learning To Love The War, he’s come to grips with its results begging the question of whether he’s truly accepted the Faustian bargain or just winking at the thought that people might believe he has.

Father John Misty – Nancy From Now On

While Tillman/Misty sings from a first-person point of view, his stage demeanor makes it difficult to believe that he is beset with the doubts and misgivings that underlie Fear Fun’s songs. Rather, it feels like he is giving voice to the shallowness and character flaws he sees in others. In doing so, he is brilliant cruel in his accuracy. With the charismatic and confident delivery of an accomplished frontman, Tillman humorously tweaks overarching and possibly clueless ambition in I’m Writing A Novel, mocks (possibly) the insecurities of a fella that’s just been dumped in Nancy From Now On and unemotionally doubts his own sexually prowess (or inattentiveness) on Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The subject matter simply doesn’t match the personality and if the songs come from a genuine spot in Tillman’s soul, he’s either past the point where they register or his stage demeanor is an extraordinarily brave face.

Whether Father John Misty is simply another name for J. Tillman or serves as an entirely new personality for the former Fleet Foxes drummer, Fear Fun is one of the more complex offerings of 2012. It’s been decades since it was fashionable to proclaim anyone the New Dylan, becoming gauche as none of the nominees ever fulfilled the prophecy. In blurring the line separating sincerity and sarcasm, turning an insightful and critical eye towards his surroundings and deftly turning a phrase, sometimes with biting effect, Tillman has made himself as equally difficult to pin down as the folk master himself. Quite possibly, that’s the point. As Dylan himself said, “folk songs are evasive – the truth about life, and life is more or less a lie, but then again that’s exactly the way we want it to be.”

EIGHTH NOTES

As far as rock and roll legends go, Steve Winwood is one of the more unsung heroes. Since his days as the Wunderkid of the Spencer Davis Group, Winwood has been an integral component of supergroups like Traffic and Blind Faith and flirted with mainstream success in the Eighties without doing lasting damage to his reputation.

With the exception of a series of high-profile arena shows with Eric Clapton in 2008, Winwood has spent much of the last decade honing his solo show into a crowd-pleasing affair, heavy on hits from his storied career. At his recent show at New York City’s Beacon Theater, Winwood offered very few twists on what had become his standard show: Low Spark of High Heeled Boys segued into Empty Pages, an extended Light Up Or Leave Me Alone provided a showcase for band solos and the encore consisted of Gimme Some Lovin’ and a version of Dear Mr. Fantasy during which Winwood offers a reminder that he’s as talented on the guitar as on the keyboards. If anything, the Beacon Theater show came across as too rehearsed. In the past, when Winwood inserted Traffic chestnuts like Glad and Freedom Rider as well as rarities like 40,000 Headmen and Medicated Goo, he and his band seemed properly energized. While polish is too be expected from a rock and roll veteran, Winwood’s recent show lacked the spontaneity that makes live music an entertaining spectacle.

In the late-Eighties through the mid-Nineties, SPIN magazine served as an outpost for coverage of bands that weren’t mainstream enough for the growing monolith of Rolling Stone. Long before Jann Wenner’s bulwark gave exposure to bands like The Replacements, The Smiths, Sonic Youth and The Cure, SPIN had devoted significant pages to them and their then-underground brethren. In the ensuing years, the Internet and growing music blogosphere coopted much a SPIN’s cachet and for good or for bad, SPIN now serves an afterthought for relevant music criticism. Just recently, SPIN attempted to attract some publicity with a tried-and-true tactic: a list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all-time.

In proclaiming Jeff Beck’s “histrionics” to be “tyranny” and professing an ignorance of Derek Trucks, SPIN was just being idiosyncratically cheeky and placing a comfortable distance between themselves and Rolling Stone’s list of axemen. In slotting Jam Master Jay at #10, they made a mockery of the entire concept and turned the list into a desperate plea for attention (which since I’m writing about it, worked). This misstep never would have occurred during the magazine’s glory days, for which it truly deserves to be remembered. Let’s pretend this never happened. SPIN Magazine Is Dead; Long Live SPIN Magazine.

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