George Usher Group: Fire Garden

[26 August 2003]

By Gary Glauber

There are two keys to fully appreciating the George Usher Group’s Fire Garden: repetition and trust. George Usher is a quiet pop poet, a songwriting veteran with decades of experience who takes pride in his craft and great pains to marry the right words and music. But critics who give a quick listen or three and dismiss his music as merely pleasant-sounding retro pop do their audience a disservice. Trust that the subtle charms of George Usher’s complex music require patience. After repeated listens, subtle hooks make their distinctive whispers heard, the years of experience show in song structure and carefully chosen lyrics. There is so much more here than any first listen will reveal.

It’s been over two years since the impressive release of Days of Plenty, yet in terms of what happened on September 11, 2001, it might as well be a century later. Based in NYC, Usher knows it’s a changed world. On Fire Garden, Usher doesn’t show much in the way of obvious reaction, yet the CD booklet tells otherwise. Two I Ching hexagrams, like twin towers now gone, provide a background to the lyrics. The left hexagram is P-hih, or Disjunction, the earth below and heaven above, all about the pettiness and misunderstandings between men fueled by money and capitalism. The right hexagram is Tzhin, or Advance, the earth below and the sun above, the dichotomy of two opposite forces as people, Yin and Yang, working together to move forward in harmony. Without stating anything, this says a whole lot.

The songs themselves are not conspicuous testaments to what has happened either. Rather, they are about people seeking refuge from the harried pace of a modern world both in love and in dreams.

While the songs still have occasional keyboard/organ accents, Usher now is composing more as a guitarist. His soft, measured tenor (akin to Roger McGuinn) guides each song, riding atop layers of guitars and more, with a group of fine musicians executing each song remarkably well: Doug Larcey on guitar, Dennis Ambrose on bass, and John Bellon on drums. Mitch Easter has again done a fine job with the mix.

The deceptively upbeat “Are You Coming Or Going” opens the CD as a discourse on the confusion surrounding a love and the seeming inevitability of ultimate tears: “Knowing how it was / Isn’t being where you were / When no-one is anywhere at all”. A man “too far gone to worry” is the mess behind the message of assumed love as salvation in “The Day Before I Found Her”. Ambrose and Bellon do fine work as rhythmic backbone here.

The pretty ballad “Fade” tells of one man’s struggle against a world that’s driving him down: “Once or twice love was standing behind me / Once or twice, time was here at my side / Once or twice luck was trying to find me / Or maybe it wasn’t and somebody lied”. Larcey displays the perfect touch with his gentle lead here.

“The Lost Fields”, a collaboration with Richard Barone, is an ode to some utopian retreat that serves as refuge from places “where angry fear is a cloak to wear, where peace of mind is denied and broken”.

“Too Busy Dreaming” is short and sweet, with lovely guitar lines running throughout, about a man too busy dreaming to worry about things, yet he cautions against taking things at face value. Also short and sweet is the romantic sigh of “She Doesn’t Even Know You’re Alive”, another example of how Usher can craft perfectly catchy pop songs that clock in at under three minutes. The musical discussion of dreams, their imagery and tricks, continues in one of my favorites here, “The Return of Your Loved Ones in Dreams”. Dennis Ambrose also contributes some fine bass work in “There Is No Sleep”.

The infectious “Spectacle” is a wry commentary on the modern need for sparkle over substance, while “Nowhere” warns against easily losing all and winding up in an empty place called nowhere.

“See You Later, There’s the Door” is one of two songs co-written with Doug Larcey, and features great percussion from John Bellon. The other, “Dancing in Troy”, asks the musical question: “The life of the party is playing with knives / When the impossible moment arrives / Will you be dancing in Troy between alternate lives?”.

A somber but beautiful closing ballad, “Daylight Comes” features a haunting chorus of guitars echoing musical phrases and offers some optimism in what follows this somnambulant state: “Endless dreaming / Distant drums / Leave your sorrow / And daylight comes”.

With repeated listens, you’ll find more here than what first meets the ear. Rife with dream references, the songs on Fire Garden reveal how love and endless dreaming can consume a waking life, offering solace and a way to survive troubles and fears. Fire Garden serves up a wide variety of fifteen offerings, but only one runs longer than four minutes. George Usher is a true pop craftsman, a master of the concise and well-structured song, honing verse, chorus and middle bridge into tersely efficient jangle-pop gems chock full of subtle infectious hooks. Fans of Usher and his music will find this to be another pleasant addition to what has already been a long and productive musical career.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/ushergeorge-firegarden/