Will Jason Falkner ever catch a break? Already, he has served frustrating stints with Jellyfish, the Three O'Clock and the Grays, managing to dodge a commercial breakthrough in each case. A subsequent solo contract with Elektra Records seemed the answer to his prayers, but his first album Author Unknown was greeted with rousing reviews...and piddling sales. It's not easy to understand why -- this collection of ornate pop songs couldn't have been more accessible or tuneful, and the fact that Falkner played all the instruments only added to its cozy charm.
Falkner wasn't thrilled with the response, either. "Well, I couldn't really be unhappy with it critically, because it did so well. I just found myself worrying about falling into that sort of Hitchcock, Himmelman, Chilton...the list goes on of people who continue to write songs that are critically lauded but commercially totally ignored. That was my biggest concern about the way the last album was promoted, and received. I was becoming a critic's darling, which is fun -- I'd certainly prefer reading nice reviews of my record than bad ones -- but at the same time, I don't think the music is beyond, below or sideways from what people can get into, your average record-buying public."
Happily, Falkner is getting another chance with this year's Can You Still Feel? Adding red-hot producer Nigel Godrich (OK Computer) as co-producer/engineer, Falkner hopes this disc can succeed on the charts where the debut failed. The wry album artwork underscores his frustration, evoking the glory days of '70s excess when larger-than-life rock stars whisked around the world in private jets, complete with garish paint jobs and shapely stewardesses. Poor Falkner depicts himself stuck on the runway, waiting for a rock 'n' roll party that will never return.
Again, he plays all the instruments, this time letting vintage synthesizers take a greater role. (He admits that piano is the only instrument he has formally studied -- he was even somewhat of a prodigy, giving recitals as a child.) Otherwise, the disc continues the stylish pop of Author Unknown, piling sweet melodies and intricate Rundgren-like chords into creamy blasts of soul-searching splendor. The album doesn't attain the heights of its predecessor and is less consistent ("See You Again" is scarily akin to lo-fi Neil Diamond, "All God's Creatures" is mediocre riff-rock), but most of the tracks deliver. "The Plan," "Author Unknown" (left off the first album, apparently) and the clarion "Honey" are exhilarating belts, the elegant "Revelation" is a flowing epic, while "Eloquence" and "I Already Know" are intensely compelling. Not bad for someone whose name is still routinely misspelled on club marquees (note: Faulkner wrote books, not songs).
"I think I had something more to prove on the last one," Falkner says, comparing the two albums. "Maybe just to myself, to prove that I could do it. I've been recording by myself forever, even throughout the course of those bands I was in, but it was my childhood dream to make a record by myself. I just like playing all the instruments. I love the aesthetic of every instrument that I play. So, on the first record, I sort of got that out. Then the second one was like, 'OK, this time, I'm going to really get it right.' Like some of the things that I thought I had missed a bit on the first album, I was damn sure I was going to nail this time. There are things on this one that I missed a little bit too, but whatever. Anybody who's honest would admit that's always the way it is when you're creating something."
Falkner's brand of tightly arranged pop is sometimes seen as a throwback, and his zealous support among the retro power-pop crowd could be seen as damning evidence. However, he's ambivalent about those who perceive him in such narrow, backward terms.
"I don't think there's anything at all nostalgic about the music, the writing, the lyrics or anything. There's nothing at all to me that's derivative of things that have happened in the past. I mean, we're working with guitars, bass, drums and vocals. It's a tired format, rock 'n' roll. But I don't think my music is tired at all, because I'm not trying to emulate any of those things. I'm not trying to even pay homage to it -- that's just how I hear music, the way I play it. And I don't want to be limited to this format. I mean, who knows what I'm going to do in the future? It might bear very little resemblance to what I've done so far."
Elektra will be disturbed to hear that, no doubt -- yet another wrinkle in their uphill campaign to pull Falkner out of cult obscurity. His ambitions are realistic, however.
"Honestly, my motivation has never been to sell albums as a conscious thing. So I can't complain. Part of me can get really excited about the idea of being one of these peripheral guys that I've become, because those are all my heroes: Tom Verlaine, Robyn Hitchcock, Elvis Costello. So it's like I'm kinda turning into that of my generation. Which is interesting."
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