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"Heaven and earth collide
May the spirit sky be the one I navigate tonight
Well, I'm just another heart and set of eyes
Looking for a miracle."
In this frequently frustrating day and age where superficial values, media stunts and instant gratification rule, it’s liberating to listen to a young artist like Jonathan Wilson whose whole being/identity as a songwriter is so engraved in the tombstone of old-fashioned musicianship, recording techniques and lyricism. Not that his timeless influences are forgotten, not even remotely; today these legendary songwriters and musicians from the late ‘60s and early-mid ‘70s (Crosby, Stills & Nash, Pink Floyd, Jackson Browne, etc.) are revered by music lovers and critics alike, and their greatest, most ambitious works are considered classics, masterpieces even; it’s just that these days few young songwriters embrace the golden age of songwriting as lovingly and wholeheartedly as Jonathan Wilson. As on his debut album, 2011’s Gentle Spirit, the 38-year old American singer/songwriter’s ambitions are delightfully lofty and extensive. The majority of the compositions on his second full-length release Fanfare are mini-epics -– long, slowly unfolding excursions into winding musical terrains and widescreen images, alternating between evocative, dreamlike atmospheres and sequences of intense outbursts, all during the course of one song, but never at the expense of melodicism. Jonathan Wilson is in no hurry to make a quick impact; he’s here to leave a lasting impression.
This relaxed approach to songwriting serves his music well from the very beginning of the album, as Fanfare’s subtle piano and discreet sound effects set a calm, pensive mood…which is then abruptly interrupted by forceful E.L.O.-esque drum rolls, crashing cymbals and sweeping strings. Jonathan Wilson doesn’t start singing until more than three minutes into the song, and when he does, the tone of his lovely voice –- sounding uncannily like America-’s Gerry Buckley –- warms your soul like the first sunrays of spring. The track then continues for yet another four minutes –- which includes a crazed, wailing, twenty-seconds-long sax solo –- before it ends with the piano from the intro to the song. Dear Friend is another seven minute-plus tour-de-force with enthralling twists and turns that work to great effect, an amalgam of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon scene, Pink Floyd grandeur, and Grateful Dead-ish psychedelic jamming.
The Country-Rock of Love To Love brings to mind early Eagles, albeit fronted by Bob Dylan (when he keeps his vocal antics to a minimum, that is). The first single released from Fanfare, it’s also the album’s only truly radio-friendly song, whose biggest appeal lies in its catchy immediacy and tasteful production. And then there’s the wonderful Future Vision, a wholly absorbing Brian Wilson/Beach Boys-influenced big ballad featuring “wall-of-sound” drums, lilting piano, and sun-soaked harmonies (3:25-4:00 is Fanfare’s most strikingly beautiful sequence), as well as a tiny dose of slide guitar that channels the ghost of George Harrison, and wobbly Wurlitzer electric piano reminiscent of Supertramp. This track is simply a joy to listen to.
Moses Pain is heavily indebted to literate and confessional singer/songwriter Jackson Browne’s early works (1972-1976), right down to the song’s structure (a predominantly slow tune that suddenly picks up the pace towards the end), and Mike Campbell’s slide guitar, which emulates the playing style of guitarist David Lindley, who was very much an integral part of Browne’s sound back then. Cecil Taylor sounds like Crosby, Stills & Nash. Or is it the band America (once unfairly labeled as a “poor man’s Crosby, Stills & Nash”)? Regardless of which trio was the inspiration for this Folk tune, it’s David Crosby and Graham Nash singing spine-tingling backing vocals and hypnotic harmony parts, as if it was still 1970. These two iconic singer/songwriters’ old band mate in Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young -– the legend Neil Young himself –- is the main influence of the next song, Illumination, with its characteristically crunchy, distorted electric guitars and assertive drumming. As a nice little touch, Jonathan Wilson adds a sonar “ping”/submarine-like synth sound in the same vein as Pink Floyd’s Echoes (off 1971’s Meddle). In addition to Crosby and Nash, the guest stars on Fanfare include Jackson Browne, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and Father John Misty a.k.a. Joshua Tillman (ex-Fleet Foxes drummer). Still, it’s multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Wilson who plays most of the instruments, ranging from electric and acoustic guitars, bass, piano, drums, mellotron, synths and Wurlitzer to Hammond B-3 organ.
Fanfare is a period piece, owing a huge debt to late ‘60s/early ‘70s songwriting -– and not just musically. The lyrics reflect the spiritual mindset of those times, too, referencing nature and animals with words and phrases such as “keep on riding”, “eagle flies”, "coyote", "in the sun", “storm clouds gathering”, "river", "in the canyon", "desert trip", “clear, blue sky”, "cosmic harmony", "on the beach", and "across the ocean". There’s even a song whose title, Her Hair Is Growing, may or may not have been inspired by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Almost Cut My Hair (from 1970’s Déjà Vu). That said, there’s so much more to Jonathan Wilson’s Fanfare than mere pastiche; his knowledge of music history is immensely impressive, but his abilities as a composer/songsmith are equally important. Fanfare is a testament to Jonathan Wilson’s talents as a songwriter, musician and producer -– a skillfully crafted, intricately textured and multi-layered work of art.