[6 January 2005]
What happens when an angry young man gets a bit older? If it’s Adam Marsland, he manages to retain that anger and use it to fuel his creative talents. The talented former front man of Cockeyed Ghost has given up the front (after four studio albums) and decided to put out music under his own name, albeit backed by a very impressive collective of musician friends, including some former band members.
Moreover, he’s given sway to an eclectic range of personal musical tastes, reflected in a dozen wonderful songs that largely convey a 1970s feel. More musically complex than any previous Marsland collection, You Don’t Know Me serves up an intriguing mix of largely piano-driven compositions.
The title track leads things off in a big melodic way, lyrics in full vitriol, with the surrounding music in well-arranged layers. Our narrator refuses to be categorized: “Take back your straight jacket / Take back your skinny tie / You may have got the knack, but baby, I’m not that guy / I’ll tell you why: ‘cause you don’t know me”. The song morphs into a rich, full-blown coda, featuring fine cello from Sandra Beane, violin from Jacqueline Grad and trumpet from Probyn Gregory.
The album’s acerbic lyrics are challenging, reflecting on life in these troubled times. Marsland takes on America’s global mess and self-serving attitudes in the punk-rant “What The World Needs Now Is A Good Deus Ex Machina”. Remember: disregard the facts and don’t accept the blame. On “Stranger on the Street”, guilt, recrimination, and somber regret are the feelings laid bare in the dulcet piano, pedal-steel and lyrical reminiscence of near-lovers.
Marsland’s last studio release was the exceptional Ludlow 6:18. One of the strongest aspects of that album was the way Marsland would tell great stories in song (“Ginna Ling”, “Burning Me Out”). Here, tracks like “My Kickass Life” continue that technique. Here Marsland takes an optimistic stance, grateful for the choices he’s made: “And if it ended tomorrow, I couldn’t complain / I had my share of sex and glory / Had an open heart and a pretty good brain / There’d be some things that I never got to do / Yeah, but only a few.” “Have A Nice Day” tells the tale of how a young stranger’s disarming compliments affected a cynical woman. These songs sound a rare optimistic note, the latter without any irony whatsoever.
In fact, Marsland is big on irony: “Love X 10 (How Dare You)” is a gem, a symphonic rocker featuring great shared lead vocals between Adam and Evie Sands, and a superb rhythm section courtesy of former Cockeyed Ghost members Severo and Kurt Medlin. Marsland describes a situation in which, years hence, tables are turned: one person now dares to fall in love with the other, yet ultimately, it’s not to be: “You ask if I still love you / And if yours is a vain pursuit / Well that’s a question I once longed to hear / But now my dear, it’s too much / It’s too late, and it’s too moot”.
It’s no secret that one of Adam’s musical influences is Elton John. This is most evident in the piano on “What The Hell”, which is pure Elton (in the best of ways). I like the way the chorus switches rhythmic gears, and, again, Marsland’s bitter lyrics are divine: “It’s a simple pastime we both enjoy / You’re a neurotic girl and I’m an empty boy. / When in Rome, when in doubt / We’re in a dark corner making out. / Better judgment in the way? Merlot, Cabernet / Opposites attract and then repel / Oh well, what the hell.”
Another moment reminiscent of Elton John’s Tumbleweed Connection period is the opening of “I Can’t Do This Anymore”. Marsland’s piano chops have never been better, and the song is a bitter pill of momentary questioning about confessing his soul to a roomful of strangers, perhaps a reflection on some of the bleaker nights encountered while touring relentlessly: “This isn’t commerce and you’ve made it clear it’s not art / It’s just some jackass pouring out his heart—what the hell is up with that? / I’ve got nothing to say to you, it was my decision to play to you / So c’est la vie and c’etait adieu, I can’t do this anymore”.
“The Big Bear” is a poignant track, featuring more of Beane’s fine cello, along with a nice guitar accompaniment to Marsland’s vocal gyrations, which hit impressively high notes on the chorus in a way that might make Brian Wilson proud. More high notes are to be found on “Other Than Me”, a funky upbeat number full of modern cultural reference points—Aimee Mann, Liz Phair, Buffy—caught up in the acid of the lyrics.
Marsland switches into quiet folk-rock gear with the alt-country tribute to making love in the desert, “A Moment Of Clarity”, which features great vocal performances from Heidi Rodewald and Stew (The Negro Problem). There are some superb flavors accented by Paul Lacques on steel guitar and Michael Whitmore on mandolin.
The CD ends on a pleasant note with the slow-building “Thanks For Everything”, a farewell with good wishes and a call for change, featuring spoken words by poet-writer Gwynne Garfinkle over a crescendo of music. Stay tuned beyond the final song for a brief but funky jam.
There are hints of influences from Steely Dan to Elton John to Brian Wilson, but Marsland is an eclectic, intelligent original. My only minor criticism is that lyrics aren’t included, though they’re available on Marsland’s website. This is an album that demands repeated listening for its full effect. It is well worth that effort.
With fine backup players including Evie Sands, Darian Sahanaja, John Perry, Robbie Rist and a host of others, Adam Marsland and co-producer Steve Refling have assembled another winner. You Don’t Know Me is probably an apt title for now, but if this level of confident, high-quality music can be sustained by Marsland, chances are that—one day—everyone will know him.