[3 February 2014]
Getting all nostalgic for new age music from the 1980s seems to currently be the hip thing for musicians of a certain age and musical disposition. And why not? If I were to say that I did not groove-out to Ray Lynch’s new age classic Deep Breakfast when I was a lad and that I do not, even to this day, blast that stuff at neighbor infuriating volumes on any given Sunday afternoon, I would be a filthy, despicable liar. You might feel compelled to ask me, “do you own more than one Tangerine Dream LP from the late 1970s?” Yes indeed I do.
There is very little doubt in my mind that the musician under current consideration, Mark McGuire, also enjoys some ‘80s new age music and ‘70s synth, when he is not busy getting bored and annoyed with people making obvious jokes about his sharing a name with a famous, roided-out baseball player. Is it possible that part of Mark McGuire’s appeal is that he allows listeners to imagine that Mark McGuire the musician and Mark McGwire the baseball player are really one and the same person? That listeners get the giddy, hallucinatory pleasure of imagining this hulking, freakish, testosterone spectacle in an Oakland A’s uniform jamming out to guitar loops and fiddling with various synthesizers? Maybe Jose Canseco will stop by and do a theremin solo. Is this part of the same ‘80s nostalgia that makes the musician Mark McGuire appealing? I can’t say for sure, but Mark McGuire’s new record Along the Way is pretty cool, while also suffering somewhat from its own warm, fuzzy, feel-good tendencies.
The album flutters away into loopy, electronic soundscapes featuring plenty of effects laden guitar loops and warm, non-oppressive digital beats. This is not a radical departure from either McGuire’s previous solo records, or his work with his old band Emeralds, but Along the Way tends to exude a sense of happy-go-lucky comfort and sunny amiability, that will either totally suck you in, or make you roll your eyes a little bit, depending on your state of mind. Although I like feel good music as much as the next person, Along the Way sometimes sacrifices intensity for the sake of warmth.
With song titles like “Wonderland of Living Things” and “For the Friendships” one cannot help but feel like McGuire is soundtracking the new Care Bears reboot, which once again summons the pesky specter of ‘80s nostalgia. Opening track “Awakening” includes a vaguely Japanese sounding stringed instrument being plucked meditatively, alongside gushes of effects laden guitar work burbling through the track like a mountain stream. “In Search of the Miraculous” rolls along in a serene, pastoral manner, punctuated by plenty of synthetic tinkling and pretty moaning vocals. At their best, these tracks sounds like warm, lovely Brian Eno numbers. At their worst, these songs sound like new age cheese mongers like Kitaro or even Yanni. This music does make you feel good, but there are times when it seems like it is trying a bit too hard to bring the happy.
Nearly two years ago, I saw Mark McGuire open for Codeine at a tiny little dive bar in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle called the Sunset Tavern. Now this was one of the very first shows that Codeine had playing following their long hiatus and being able to see them for the first time in this super-duper intimate, tiny little bar already had me pretty pumped. But McGuire did a wonderful job of setting the stage for Codeine, in spite of their rather different styles of music. McGuire’s ability to recreate his fully fleshed out sound with just himself, his guitar, and various gadgets and pedals, is admirable. There is no question about Mark McGuire’s prodigious skills as both a composer and a performer, but bringing a track to a good shuddering climax now and again never hurt anybody. Along the Way is always pretty, but rarely beautiful.