Patience often isn’t a virtue of the pop listener, especially in these “I want it and I want it now” times. As such, some might easily dismiss George Usher’s latest release as just another jangle-pop throwaway. That would be a mistake, as Days of Plenty is a wonderful collection of truly worthwhile songs. You just have to realize this CD is time-released for your satisfaction; for best results, you have to keep playing it. With persistent play, these elusive pop gems work their magical way into your subconscious and it hits you that this one’s a keeper.
At first, you hear merely a nice compendium of retro-guitar laden pop. This is a tight band, you say, noting the impressive layers of Gretsch and Epiphone guitars being matched beat for beat with superior bass and drum accompaniment. The well-crafted sound suggests early Kinks at times, though you hear some dbs in the influence mix, and of course inevitable early- to mid-Beatlesque embellishments. However, additional listens unlock the aching beauty of the melodies, along with the superb fills and interwoven sounds that will haunt your mind and make you wonder how you missed these initially. You’ll also hear more of the spare poignant poetry of Usher’s lyrics. He relates—in slightly different, credible ways—the pains involved in matters of the heart and living life itself.
That’s the thing with George Usher. If you invest the time, his subtle pop songs pay big dividends. He doesn’t have a devoted following for nothing. Along with Richard X. Heyman, he’s another long under-appreciated pop auteur. The Cleveland-born Usher is no stranger to the singer/songwriter scene, having been at this game since his early teens.
In 1977, he came to New York as part of a band called The Decoys and then in the mid-‘80s became a member of Beat Rodeo and an occasional member of Richard Barone’s The Bongos. In the late ‘80s, he formed his own House of Usher, and also teamed with Steve Almaas for a release under the moniker The Gornack Brothers. In the ‘90s, Usher joined The Schramms on keyboards for an album, then struck out on his own with Miracle School. In 1998 Usher released the well-received Dutch April, a CD featuring a wall-of-sound pop approach.
Now a few years later, Usher has stripped back his sound to that of a tight band, hence the new George Usher Group name. The group serves the songs well, and features guitarist Doug Larcey, bassist Dennis Ambrose and drummer John Bellon.
“Smoke That Kiss” starts things off on an upbeat note, sounding like a musical cousin of “What I Like about You”, while the lyrics mix images from political dialogues on vice. “Channel 104” is another treat, dissecting the world of the modern television addict with irony. He wants to look away from “the evil eye of Channel 104”, yet describes some of the horrifically captivating sights seen there, and ultimately is drawn to see what happens next.
“Days of Plenty” is a prescient song, considering the recent plummet of the dot-com world and our current stagnant economy. It asks the musical question “What’ll you do when the days of plenty end?” of some compulsive 21st-century soul who has given up love in favor of material abundance. This title track uses mellotron to move it slightly into art-rock terrain.
Usher impresses with the way he captures the mental frenzy involved in obsessing about love, love-to-come and love lost. In “Crowded Mind” he ponders, “Lately now I wonder if I might be showing / any sign of where I’ve been or where I’m going / If I am and luck is all I’m really after / what’s it gonna take to drown out all the laughter”. “Our World” is a song about one who ignores real life to live in a dream instead: “Now love breeds loneliness / but no, not here / All my worries of broken promises disappear / Everybody wants to know where I am / I’m only dreaming of when I’ll be under your spell / in our world”.
“I’m Not Gonna Be Around” is an easily accessible guitar-driven work that clocks in at a radio-friendly 3:25 (if only). Lyrically, it’s an examination of how relationships provide selective memory regarding what is and what was: “The world can end tomorrow / and it’s because / she’ll say she never noticed / how good it was. / Only when what’s she forgotten / turns up in the lost and found / she remembers what I told her / I’m not gonna be around”.
Usher’s slower tempo songs arguably are his finest achievements here. “The End and the Beginning” uses cello and string accompaniment to capture the curious mind games of haunting desire: “Where was the sun when all my days were blind? / Where was the moon in the darkness above? / I stayed awake not knowing what I’d find / thinking of you and the madness of love”. “Baby, Where’d You Go” explores the fickleness of love along with the unreality of love lost.
“Long Long Never” is like two songs in one, a wrestling match between total despair and love as redemption that works surprisingly well as a closing anthem to this strong pop collection.
Each song is crafted meticulously, belying the simplicity of the sound. Mitch Easter ties it all together with his trademark clean production, perhaps drawing on his experiences in Let’s Active or Velvet Crush to effectively capture that jangle pop sound. My only wish is that the vocals had been punched up more. Usher’s voice here is an equal part of the seamless whole—and at times the lyrics get a little lost in the mix.
Usher’s pop expertise comes to the fore with Days of Plenty, and all of the tracks are strong. For the patient pop-listener willing to put in the time, the rewards are well worth the effort.