Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Jellyfish Family Tree Part 4: Falkner Knocks Me Down

Although the sign on my door said “Assistant Band Director,” I was taking an indulgent moment to cling to my past career as a rock star, and for that fleeting moment, I was feeling pretty confident. The refrain from Radiohead’s Street Spirit (Fade Out) was dying away in the speakers, and I had nailed it on piano by ear in the first run-though. I was actually quite impressed with the elegant simplicity of the song and, emboldened, I put in another favorite: Follow Me from Jason Falkner’s 1996 release Presents Author Unknown. As seemingly simple and catchy as the song was, I thought that I might have similar success.  I was dead wrong.

Follow Me by Jason Falkner on Grooveshark

Within the first twenty seconds, Falkner left me and my remedial harmonic piano vocabulary in the dust. I fumbled helplessly as it fiendishly twisted and turned through inversions and secondary dominants, and I simply could not keep up. By the song’s end, I wasn't even convinced I knew what key it was in, and what little confidence Radiohead had granted me had been shattered.

Falkner came to my attention on the suggestion of my friend Paul, the drummer for The Days, when I was playing with Fletcher.  I was not teaching regularly until after my stint as a semi-professional musician had ended, though, so I must have had  the album for quite awhile before this episode made me realize just how sophisticated it was. It ended up becoming an album that easily rivals Jellyfish’s original releases in terms of my esteem.

After this humbling piano encounter, I decided that I needed to examine the album further on a more familiar instrument, so I began to run through its tracklist on bass. This still took a little bit of note-taking. I began to realize that, despite being quite accessible, all of Falkner’s songs simmer with vast nuance just below the surface. Additionally, like on almost all of his solo work, Falkner plays virtually every instrument on Presents Author Unknown. The dedicated listener can find dozens and dozens of incredible compositional twists and masterful performances littered across the album’s short span.

There were lots of rumors in the Jellyfish fan base as to the details of Falkner’s split from Jellyfish, but they all seem to agree that, despite contributing an irreplaceable guitar voice to the group, he was an underutilized talent. In retrospect, I don't know that there was a good solution for incorporating him into the band. With a little imagination, I could imagine a couple of songs from Presents Author Unknown reinterpreted within the strict structures of Jellyfish’s identity, but overall, Falkner’s work has too much personality on its own to fit into Jellyfish’s retro-pop mission statement. Listening to Presents Author Unknown, it’s quite obvious to me that that he was that band’s George Harrison: a sparkling, innovative songwriter in his own right that simply did not have the space to shine between the interpersonal pressure of his bandmates.

Like many of these albums on the Jellyfish Family Tree, I have not listened to Presents Author Unknown in several years, and its exuberant energy and impossibly sophisticated songcraft still blows me away.  It is a criminally underrated power pop masterpiece that I would gladly put on my short list of desert island albums.

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