Were it not for the dedication of fans, musicians, and a few brave souls at Dreamworks Records, you would never have had the chance to own this beautiful album. If you don’t know anything about Josh Clayton-Felt, then perhaps a primer is in order. It’s a classic story of rock and roll betrayal, tragedy, and triumph.
In 1991, alt-rockers School of Fish released its self-titled debut album. Having relocated from Boston to Los Angeles, Dominic Nardini, M.P., Michael Ward and Josh Clayton-Felt got the big record contract, hit the studio, and emerged with one of the best albums of that year. School of Fish was almost an exception to the rule at the time. In an “alternative” music scene dominated by Nirvana and Pearl Jam, School of Fish would likely have been swallowed by the sharks of the grunge movement had it not been for the brilliant single, “3 Strange Days”. On the immediate strength of “3 Strange Days”, which was quickly picked up by radio and MTV, the School of Fish album became a small classic, making it onto various top 20 lists of the year. Full of fresh guitar rock that was unabashedly pop, and featuring beautifully written and performed songs courtesy of Ward and Clayton-Felt, it’s an album that still stands up among the best today.
Unfortunately, for their second outing School of Fish was slightly more swayed by the dominant sounds of the period. 1993’s Human Cannonball was a more grandiose rock affair, the guitars and amps turned up, and certain songs rocking as hard as anything else released that year. While critics hailed the progression, it didn’t have the pop charm of its predecessor, and, more importantly, it didn’t have another “3 Strange Days”. In the end the record was largely ignored by the public. Unable to duplicate their early success, School of Fish broke up and the members went their separate ways. M.P. went on to further work as a musician and producer, Michael Ward became a studio musician par excellence and joined Jakob Dylan for the second incarnation of the Wallflowers, while Josh decided to strike out on his own as a solo artist.
In 1996, Clayton-Felt released his first solo album, Inarticulate Nature Boy, which featured 12 of the 25 songs he’d written in the interim years. Slipping into a home studio and deciding to learn and play all the instruments on the album, Clayton-Felt made it a true solo experience. Ward reunited with his friend to add some guitar tracks, and he had a little bit of help on percussion, but for the most part Clayton-Felt built the album from the ground up, relying on his musical intuition and native talent. Based on the strength of the songs and his pedigree in School of Fish, A&M picked it up and released it. Although it had only moderate success and wasn’t by any standards a commercial powerhouse, both dedicated School of Fish fans and new fans picked up through the disc embraced it whole-heartedly and Clayton-Felt’s new career was begun.
Then, in a twist of fate that has become the rule rather than the exception in major label dealings, A&M itself went into a limbo of uncertainty surrounding a possible buy-out/merger. Although Josh was ready to release a new batch of songs as a follow-up, the label suspended all contracts and placed a freeze on all recordings. When the dust settled and A&M had finally been sold to Universal Music. Unfortunately for Clayton-Felt, Universal went about “cleaning house” by purging contracts, one of which happened to be his. To make matters worse, the new owners refused to allow him to use or buy back his previously recorded material. Clayton-Felt continued to work on the final recording and mixing of the tracks undaunted, lobbying Universal to at least let him self-release the music as he’d done previously with two homemade recordings, Josh Clayton . . . Felt Like Making a Live Record and Beautiful Nowhere.
He finished the final mixing and production in early December 1999. One week later, he was admitted to the hospital after a tumor had been discovered that turned out to be malignant. Less than a month later, on January 19, 2000, cancer ended Josh’s life.
What happened next is a testament to his family and fans. After learning of Clayton-Felt’s illness, Universal finally consented to release its claim on the music and turned it over to his family. Through Josh’s website, family, friends and fans organized a network to lobby for the promotion and release of his long-delayed material. Through the combined effort of many dedicated people, they finally convinced reps at DreamWorks to take a chance on printing the album. The result, the culmination of three years of labor, tragedy, and perseverance, is Spirit Touches Ground, an album that stands as much as a testament to the love and devotion that Josh Clayton-Felt inspired as it does to his music.
But, after so much work, is the album itself worth it? Absolutely. Anyone familiar with his work through either School of Fish or his solo career will know what to expect, and they will find it here. Full of sometimes earthy, sometimes lush, and sometimes straightforward tunes, Spirit Touches Ground could have been a launching pad for greater success were Josh around to benefit. As it stands, Spirit Touches Ground will always stand as a fitting final statement to an often brilliant and always talented musician’s vision.
Clayton-Felt himself shied away from trying to describe or categorize his music, and with good reason. His songs have always been marked by a fusion of rock, pure pop, funk, and the poetic element generally reserved for singer-songwriters. Spirit Touches Ground reveals elements of John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Buckley, and a slew of musical influences, yet always feels like a personal extension of Josh himself rather than imitation. And, as so many have noted in the past, there’s his voice. Ever since his days in School of Fish, listeners and critics have noted that Clayton-Felt’s voice possessed a quality of clarity, emotion, and a beauty that helped drive his songs. Personal and intimate, his voice soars through the fourteen tracks of Spirit Touches Ground in a graceful, if unintentional, swan song.
The album opens with the first single, “Building Atlantis”, that has already popped up on radio stations as a reminder of Clayton-Felt’s talent for writing soulful jangle-pop. Filled with upbeat acoustic guitar, playful electric riffs, a rich bass, crafty organs, lovely melodies and enough “oohs” and “ahhs” to satisfy any pop purist, the song’s pristine optimism is an excellent insight into the spirit (no pun intended) that infused Josh’s life. The pop/rock continues on “Diamond in Heart”, as fine a tune as anything he’s written since “King of the Dollar” and “Rose Colored Glasses”, and showcasing his virtuosity with tight, rocking guitar lines.
For all of its pop-rock tendencies, the heavy doses of funk really stand out on Spirit Touches Ground. Inarticulate Nature Boy stood out from Clayton-Felt’s previous work for its greater focus on funk guitars and bass lines, and it’s a theme that continues on this album. “Invisible Tree”, “Love Sweet Love”, “Kid on the Train”, and “Spirit Touches Ground” all fuse a bluesy rock with some extremely funky hooks in a style that straddles an intersection between the two, while also retaining distinct pop elements. “Kid on a Train” has such a deep groove that it almost dares you to get the hooky chorus out of your head. “Night of a Thousand Girls” even merges this funk element with a vaguely Middle Eastern sound that sounds like a hip kasbah.
Of course, Josh Clayton-Felt was also particularly noted for his more ballad-oriented material. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to the gorgeous acoustic melodies of “Fell”, then you already understand. Spirit Touches Ground delivers these songs in spades. From the more ornate tunes like “Backwards World” and “Too Cool for This World” to the simpler tracks like “Already Gone” and “Waiting to Be”, Clayton-Felt’s sensitive side is on wonderful display here. Alternately peppered with horns, chiming piano, or lush string arrangements, Josh and his warm voice stay at the forefront of these songs, conveying messages of passion, love and insight without shame.
Lyrically, Spirit Touches Ground covers the areas of life that had always been Clayton-Felt’s primary interests. His songs have almost always been about soul-searching and self-discovery, delivered in such a wide-eyed manner that you couldn’t help but accept them as genuine. The same holds true here. Whether it’s the spirituality of “Invisible Tree” or the examination of loneliness in “Half Life” or “Deer in the Headlights”, Clayton-Felt invites the listener to make a connection and explore the ideas for themselves, even when the song seems confessional. There’s a simplicity and an honesty that immediately pervades these messages, but upon further reflection they reveal their depth and cleverness as well.
Of course, as with any album released after an artist’s death, there is a tendency to examine the lyrics for prescient signs of imminent demise. On Spirit Touches Ground the songs are ripe for such speculation. “Too Cool for This World” could easily be read as a premonition, and “Already Gone”‘s central lyric of “And I / Never thought I’d leave you / But I don’t belong / Seems right / I will always love you / So don’t get me wrong / But I’m already gone” is just plain eerie. But as the liner notes of the album state, “You can hear an intriguing second layer of meaning, the sense of moving on to a truer world, in many of the lyrics, and titles, . . . Yet Josh did not know he was going to leave us. He did not even know that he was very ill. He simply felt compelled to finish the music the way he wanted it to be”. Putting aside the sense of synchronous timing, it’s simply a blessing that he was able to complete the work on Spirit Touches Ground as both his own monument and as a final gift to music.
For all that, however, it’s the final track, “Dragon Fly”, that makes Spirit Touches Ground as close to transcendent as an album can be. An incredible song in music, lyric, scope and dimension, “Dragon Fly” is the final statement that Josh may ever make in album form and it sums up his life and vision as keenly as any single song could. All about finding the passage into the sublime in whatever form you can, when Josh sings, “It’s gonna be different this time / They can’t stop your believing / You cut a whole in your wall last night / And found a window worth keeping”, you truly feel like he found that window in the end. Fans have already picked up on this song as the truest tribute to Clayton-Felt, and it’s a powerful experience to hear. As the song fades out to a nighttime chorus of crickets and clicking dragonflies, a sense of closure and peace remains. Rather than dwell on the sadness of loss, “Dragon Fly” asks us to focus instead on the beauty of remaining and celebrate Josh Clayton-Felt rather than mourn him.
If all this seems like so much hyperbole, perhaps its because I counted myself among his fans long before knowing the full story of his passing. Perhaps I just wanted to give thanks for his musical companionship in a fitting tribute. But if any of this story has piqued your interest, I ask you to check out Josh Clayton-Felt’s website (www.joshclayton.com) and discover him for yourself. The site alone is inspiring for how much devotion was poured into commemorating the man by making Spirit Touches Ground become a reality, plus you’ll be able to check out some of the songs yourself. Perhaps, if it appeals to you, you’ll open yourself up to let Josh Clayton-Felt’s spirit touch ground in you.