Refreshingly Randy Newman-esque, “American Health Insurance” starts wry, turns earnest, and engages the ear with chord changes last heard in the early ’70s.
Refreshingly Randy Newman-esque, “American Health Insurance” starts wry, turns earnest, and engages the ear with chord changes last heard in the early ’70s. McGill is exactly the kind of durable, skillful singer/songwriter who might’ve made a solid name for himself back in those halcyon days. Instead, in the 2010s, he joins the legions who release good music to an indifferent world, not actually as propped up by the endless supply of free digital music as proponents keep telling us is going to happen, any day now, just wait and see. And okay, so I’m especially disgruntled because I just today saw someone still passing along Cory Doctorow’s idiotic “My problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity” meme with a straight face, as if being merely one of a zillion artists throwing free content onto the web isn’t being dreadfully obscure in a whole new way.
Anyway. McGill does a nice job here, coming across as simultaneously weary and engaged, while the song smartly transforms from an ambling piano ballad into something more soulful, complete with spiffy horn charts. The title alone prompts a bit of a surprised smile, but despite the opening line, McGill himself has noted that the song is not actually about health insurance, but about how it feels to be an American in this insecure moment in history. And while that may not actually feel too good, I can’t help but be buoyed by McGill’s subtly spirited performance. He’s got one of those rounded voices that can get a little blurry if too reverbed, but we get a good balance in the mix, which stays generally crisp (horn charts will do that for you), and gives him a chance to stretch a bit—I like both his falsetto reaches and then, in particular, that stirring tone he achieves on the lyrics “when the house was on fire” at 1:42. I think we sometimes forget that half of a singer/songwriter’s job is singing, and maybe sometimes some of them forget that too. Not Mr. McGill.
“American Health Insurance” is from the album Gallows Etiquette, released a couple of weeks ago, its title taken from a Charles Simic poem. This is McGill’s sixth album, and his first after a trio of releases with him fronting a band called What Army. He was featured in that time frame here on Fingertips back in October 2009, for the wonderful song “Madeline, Every Girl.” Note that the Chicago-based McGill is also a member of the band Margot & the Nuclear So-and-So’s. Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up.
With its classically American sound, “Peace in the Valley” all but force images of prairies and big skies and dusky campfires into your brain.
I am not sure how or when there developed music that innately sounds “American” but it happened. And if the composer Aaron Copeland didn’t himself invent the sound he surely perfected it. Note that this has little if anything to do with the genre of music that has been called Americana; in fact, I believe the only songwriter in the rock’n’roll world who has tapped into that quintessential American-music vein with regularity and brilliance has been Randy Newman (see “Louisiana 1927,” see “Dixie Flyer,” see “My Country,” et al). “Peace in the Valley” immediately aligns itself with this sound; the opening melody and chord progression all but force images of prairies and big skies and dusky campfires into your brain. A cumulative sense of homespun gospel adds to the pioneer sensibility.
Where “Peace in the Valley” veers from this archetypal sound is in the details, which register as somewhere between subtly disheveled and overtly unhinged. Orchestral instruments play (sometimes squeak, as per 1:10), but with ramshackle discipline. You kind of wait for the whole thing to unravel, but it doesn’t. This adds to the power. The vocals, when they come, via Alex Jacob (who does musical business as Therapies Son) and Ella Hatamian, are whispery-fragile (him) and sturdy but plain-spoken (her). Soon they are backed by a swelling choir, in which context Jacob suddenly begins to sound—intentionally or not—a bit like Randy Newman himself. After one verse and one visit to the chorus, the instrumental ensemble reasserts control, takes the rhythm up a notch, and culminates in a violin solo that out-ass-kicks most electric guitar solos in our electric-guitar-deprived day and age. All in all I’m not exactly sure what I just sat through but I enjoyed it.
The larger context is unhelpful. Cliff Dweller has been identified in its press material as a “sonic and visual project” by an LA-based artist named Ari Balouzian, himself a classically-trained violist and composer, as well as a film scorer. He is also (there’s more?) a seventh-generation master shoemaker, working for the Burbank-based company Cydwoq, founded by his father. Cliff Dweller, as an art project, has something to do with Cydwoq but at this point—a personal short-coming, I’ll confess—my intellectual eyes glaze over. I remain unconvinced by projects with aims both large-scale and obscure, and have not as yet mustered the musical patience to listen to the 19 mostly instrumental songs that comprise Emerald City, the album on which you’ll find “Peace in the Valley.” Feel free to sample the whole thing yourself, however, via Bandcamp; your mileage may very well vary.