Friday, February 4, 2011

Jon Brion and Sean Lennon: Separated at Birth?

I first thought of starting this blog to try to capture some of the bizarre thoughts I have about music (that probably only make sense in my head) as I listen in the car.  I awoke this morning to snow on the ground and no coffee in the pantry.  Despite the admonishment of the entire city of Austin for people to stay off the roads, I embarked on a low-friction adventure to Starbuck’s to remedy this nightmarishly caffeine-free situation and one such thought came to mind. Sliding backwards downhill to the soundtrack of Sean Lennon’s “Friendly Fire” album, I began to make some compelling connections between him and one of my past favorites, Jon Brion.  I began by comparing their musical similarities, but as I continued, I began to wonder if they were, like, separated at birth or something.  While the arcs of their careers are not completely analogous, it seemed like there were some interesting junctures worth blogging about.

If you know who Jon Brion is, you probably read a lot of liner notes.  He was a behind-the-scenes guy for a lot of the more artistic LA-based pop bands in the 90s.  He was Jason Faulker’s under-credited stand-in on Jellyfish’s “Spilt Milk” album, and was a contributing member of The Grays.  He co-wrote and produced Aimee Mann’s first three solo albums and probably influenced her subsequent work to the present day.  He provided the soundtrack to several movies, “Magnolia” being the stand-out.  Brion produced a ridiculous number of albums, as well, from artists as diverse as Robyn Hitchcock and Kanye West.  Between all of this work, he has a standing Friday night one-man show at the Largo in Los Angeles where he performs on a wide array of instruments and loopers with no setlist, improvising covers and originals and pretty much whatever else comes into his head.  

Despite all of this proliferation, Brion has only ever released one solo album, the pristine, slightly rare, indie-before-indie-was-cool "Meaningless.”  Completed in 1997, dropped by the record label, and subsequently independently released in 2001, “Meaningless” is well-crafted, lyrically deep and musically moving. Although I generally prefer live video, Brion is pretty short in this department.  This is a good song from "Meaningless" that a fan put to a rather bizarre traffic safety video.

Due to his pedigree (which seems to be a bit of an albatross around the neck), Sean Lennon has actually garnered a bit more attention than Brion.  If he were to capitalize on his name, he would most assuredly be more widely known.  By choice, however, he has remained largely behind-the-scenes as a session musician and producer, most notably contributing to the career of Cibo Matto.  A quick look at his resume also reveals soundtrack and some film work.  Given that his career does not have the exact same span as Brion’s, there does seem to be a significant crossover in output and interests.

If output is measured in only terms of solo work, however, Sean Lennon’s resume seems to also be similarly meager.  Two releases, "Into the Sun" and the one I am currently listening to, “Friendly Fire,” form the entirety of “Sean Lennon albums.”   Both are, like “Meaningless,” well-crafted, lyrically deep, and musically moving.

“Friendly Fire,” in particular, is stylistically similar to “Meaningless” in multiple capacities.  Of course, there is the late Beatles influence that pervades most creative pop music.  Beyond that, both albums sparkle, shuffle, and smirk the listener through a singable collection of dark psychological self-examinations.  In fact, it seems to me that the dissonance that arises between the uplifting beauty of Brion’s and Lennon’s work and the melancholic narrative of their lyrics is what gives their music so much gravitas.  It’s almost as if a person who has experienced the song could not possibly have written it so sweetly.  It feels like they are talking about themselves in the third person, which means that they could be talking about anyone – even you.  

Lennon’s career is, as I stated, a little shorter than Brion’s and the similarities (which now seem loose, as I look back on it), will probably peel apart.  Still, its fun to think about – and it is, after all, just a thought.

P.S. In the process of writing this, I found out that Brion contributed to "Friendly Fire," by the way.  Um, maybe that's why there are some similarities.........

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