No Waste Land

(For the season, and my Winter Fundraiser, I’m reposting some old favorites.)

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The first step to getting a handle on your problem is to admit you have one. It’s okay, know that you’re not alone. Certainly not. You are not the only person who has ever been in a band, or yearned to be in one. You are not the first person who wanted to make music but also wanted to impress girls, or guys, and wanted that maybe more than the music itself. You are not the only person who saw someone sing, wield the guitar, pound the drums onstage, who wanted to be up there, or on the screen in a video, wanted to feel that thrill and power of performing, of becoming a synthesis of your true self and your dream self and being adulated for it. And it doesn’t matter what kind of band you were in, or wanted to be in, or what bands you and your friends listened to, there was always some song or record that you loved that you weren’t supposed to love, weren’t supposed to think was cool. Those songs overtook you with a sweet insidiousness and before you could gather your superego and place yourself firmly in your public persona and shrug off “Babylon Sisters” when it came on over the car radio, or the video for “Faithfully” when it’s slot turned up on the MTV rotation you found yourself singing along, unselfconsciously, to “If You Leave Me Now.” Yeah, the ladies love Cetera, so you love Cetera.

William Britelle loves Cetera. Well, I don’t know for sure that he personally loves Cetera, but on his new release, Television Landscape , he loves Cetera, and he loves Prince and Yes and The Beach Boys and XTC and Cat Stevens and Toto and ABC and Ultravox and Tears For Fears and Boston and The Tubes and, if I may be so bold, he loves him a little bit of Styx too (and I love him for that, because the first LP I ever bought was The Grand Illusion , and I’m not ashamed to admit it). He loves rock and pop music and this spectacularly great CD is all about that love that dares to speak its name. He loves the idea of being, and of actually being, a pop star. So few of us become that, but we can bask in the glory that he so generously shares with us, as sympathetic equals, and that sentiment is the fundamental thing that makes him a star and this record so magnificent.

The music tells the tale. And here I must take up a gentle argument with the publicity materials and the critics who have accepted them without thinking and listening; to call this, as they have, a mixed-genre concept album that reconciles the music he cherishes and the music he enjoys (redundant), and to more than hint that it is somehow a classical (even indie-classical) recording, makes a case the music cannot support and also fails to credit how great the music truly is. This is pop music through and through, from a musician who (like most musicians) listens to, works with and loves a great variety of music. Nigel Tufnel may have been heavily influenced by Mozart and Bach, but his ‘Mach’ piece “Lick My Love Pump” was nothing but rock and roll. Music is a product of its influences, and the production of it may mean writing out every note on staff paper, but songs about pop culture ennui and unrequited crushes on stars with four-four backbeats, prog-rock dueling riffs and shredding guitar solos are pop music. The concept album is a pop music creation, thanks to Frank Sinatra and Nelson Riddle, but using orchestral instruments, as Riddle and Brittelle do, and writing sophisticated song structures and arrangements, which Brittelle does beautifully, just show how broad, varied and wonderful pop music can be. No one can seriously argue that Painted From Memory is anything other than pop music, or that the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Apocalypse is classical music, so give Brittelle credit for what he actually has done. There’s no shame at all in being a pop star, only glory.

And what a glorious record Television Landscape is, musically and lyrically. The attention getting song is “Sheena Easton” (currently a free download, along with “Dunes of Vermillion”), with Brittelle singing unnervingly about how cold it is outside her house. What exactly is he doing there? He’s proclaiming his love for the former ingenue from Scotland, a sugary pop singer not completely or convincingly transformed into a sex pot by Prince. She brought on more than a few wet dreams with “Sugar Walls” and appearances on Miami Vice , and then . . . well, pop fame can be evanescent. But a young man listening to Prince at the time might remember those leg warmers, those pastels . . . It’s glorious to be young, it is. The moments when burgeoning physical life and possibility meet with the simple and powerful revelations of insight, sympathy and belonging to the world, when we find that book or that song or that girl or boy who say the thing to us that we’ve been thinking all along, those are moments when we are conscious of our becoming persons, of seeing a bit of our future in the distance, and pop music captures that indescribable feeling in our hearts better than anything else. The songs that have meaningful power for us in those moments, the time we were caught in the rain, the time we stayed up all night, the time she rested her head on our shoulder when we were in the back of the cab, are cemented forever in our souls. Once we are closer to becoming what we are, those epiphanies are fewer and more subtly textured, but those memories we keep in the songs in our souls never go away, and those songs always remind us, with great pleasure, of those moments and how wonderful they felt. The brilliance of “Sheena Easton,” with it’s power ballad opening, Marc Danciger’s soaring guitar, the horn accompaniment that Peter Cetera made possible, the children’s choir (!) singing the refrain ‘Sheena Easton be my mother/and I’m going off to Miami,’ is that even if you never thought much of Prince or Sheena, Brittelle fools you into feeling like you did, he gets you feeling like you were as lost in the dream of stardom as he was. There is no higher achievement in art than the artist making you feel exactly what he means.

In case this sounds like it may be ponderous or pretentious, it’s not in the least. Brittelle is not an ironist, he’s sincere and completely unselfconscious in his love for pop music and youthful radiance. When he proclaims to Sheena that ‘after all I am just a man of flesh and bone/and the truth is not kind,’ he’s not thinking that it’s funny when James Brown speechifies into the mic, he’s thinking that it’s fantastic, and he’s going to do it too. It’s the attitude that freely admits that when Journey does a power ballad, they really know how to do it, and that a power ballad is an objectively good thing. And it is. Mock the clothes and hair and musical style if you wish, and you don’t have to love Journey, but self-actualization demands giving credit where it’s due:

Yes, the song is full of standard, unsurprising pop gestures. Call them clichés, because that’s what they are. But music is made mostly of clichés, and they work, whether it’s the piano and Steve Perry’s voice building up to the expected climax of volume and activity, or the perfect cadence at the end of the first eight bars of the opening of a Haydn String Quartet. Television Landscape is full of clichés, ones that work musically – they fill the moment with what it needs and bring that one to the next – and emotionally; they are the elements that connect us to the pleasures we’ve had in the clichés of our past, and with them we share the pleasure and love Brittelle has for all the music in his life that brought him to this record.

“Hey Child” and “Pegasus in Alcatraz” are essentially prog-rock instrumentals, full of complex contrapuntal playing, sectional changes, grooves, instruments trading off solos. In “Hey Child” and “Dunes of Vermillion” he makes heavy use of AutoTune, again, not to mock others who use it but because it sounds good, and it’s what a pop star does. The sequence of songs is carefully and effectively made. Musically, there is a subtle but clear link in the guitar riffs heard at the beginning of “Dune,” “Sheena” and “Pegasus,” which rounds off what sounds like a first section, followed by the calming respite of the regretful ballad, “Halcyon Days.” It’s through this second part, through the vibrant “Wasteland,” the punk rumba of “Rio Rio,” the soft rock of “Eyes Of The Ocean,” the slow burn of “Television Landscape, and orchestral and choral resolution of “The Color Of Rain,” that it’s possible to chart an abstract journey from an imagined apocalypse to a state of hope, but it’s pop-apocalypse; the interior, emotional desolation of yearning for love, belonging, success, the things that seem so close yet just out of reach when we’re young, the trials of disappointment and disillusion, then the reminder that a song can save your life, or even just a moment of it. Because that’s where the record starts, and even with an album full of intelligently sensitive lyrics, a full orchestral sound and scope, a collection of great, classic pop music gestures in the spots where they make the most sense, the greatest and most powerful truth is in these words at the start:

Every night I watch cartoons until 5am

drinking orange juice on a brown couch smoking cigarettes

and waiting for something to happen

Those three lines encapsulate about a million pop songs and about ten million years of the accumulated Romance of youth. Alright, this is life I’ve found myself in, now where do I go, what do I do? Well, become a pop star, of course.

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