The literature and cinema of Los Angeles is full of binaries, of twins and alter egos; here is another. On Cahuenga is a double of On Sunset, the same but incredibly different.
Sunset Boulevard and Cahuenga Boulevard are both important boulevards to Los Angeles, the City of Angels. The former street lives in the collective consciousness even of those of us who haven't lived in and have barely visited L.A. The latter? Not so much, though Wikipedia tells me it connects old Hollywood, represented by Sunset Blvd, to North Hollywood and Hollywood Hills. And LaNightlife.com tells me Cahuenga is where you go "when you just can't decide what kind of night you want to have". ("On Cahuenga you don't have to choose".)
Nicholas Krgovich's 2014 work On Sunset was a glitzy pop album reflecting an outsider's view of living in L.A., being spellbound by it while also feeling lonely, outside the spectacle, wondering what everyone else is up to behind the lights.
On Sunset was the first major solo statement from an artist who has been quietly building his own legend within indie-label pop music, through groups like P:ano, No Kids and Gigi. A Canadian with Stephin Merritt and music-theatre tendencies in his songwriting, who over the years filtered into it R&B and top 40 sounds (of various eras).
The literature and cinema of Los Angeles – from Double Indemnity to Chinatown (and The Two Jakes) to Inherent Vice -- is full of binaries, of twins and alter egos. Here is another. On Cahuenga is a double of On Sunset, the same but incredibly different.
The songs are the same, in the same order. But where On Sunset was clearly labored over, painstakingly pieced together, On Cahuenga was recorded in an afternoon. Where the first had layers of sound, the second is Krgovich sitting at an electric piano and singing, apparently (smartly) prompted to do so by Orindal Records' Owen Ashworth (of Advance Base, Casiotone for the Painfully Alone).
Listeners to On Cahuenga then will also represent a split – those who heard the first album (falling somewhere along a continuum of excitement/engagement with it) and those who didn't. Also, those who know Nicholas Krgovich's music and those who are hearing it for the first time, in a completely different context than usual.
For the first group, those already in love with or at least familiar with On Sunset, this relative On Cahuenga will be a revelation; a rethinking, rehearing of the other album.
For the second group, it'd be interesting to see how someone hears it. Fresh, what's hear is minimalist, fairly monotonous music that nonetheless has little emotional narratives within.
Truth be told, I'm guessing at what someone who hasn't heard Krgovich or On Sunset would make of it, trying to put myself into their ears. To me On Sunset was a brilliant statement from a songwriter I've been following closely for about a decade, since P:ano's third album Brigadoon. So the word I used before – revelation – is how I feel about it.
It's not like Krgovich hasn't released minimalist piano-based music before. He has, but nothing that sounds this rough and immediate, a clear trait of the way it was recorded – as if someone asked Krgovich on the fly to sit down and play/sing his whole album in one take, on instruments and in a setting much different than how it was recorded.
It isn't that the songs are purposely performed differently. But when you take a carefully constructed studio work and perform it as a solitary, impromptu affair, it's going to come across differently. To say the melancholy in the album is amplified would be true. But in a way so is the sweetness, the beauty, the longing. And when those of us intimately familiar with the original album listen to this, our brains are filling in the original sounds – or more precisely creating, them as an echo – as we take in what we're actually hearing in the moment.
In-the-moment is how the album was recorded and how we experience it. But it also describes the place the songs itself put us in. Take, for example, "Along the PCH on Oscar Night". When he sings, "something is happening across town without me again", we're there in that moment. That song, as performed on On Cahuenga is also exemplary of the way his singing can feel more unleashed here than On Sunset because we're not hearing it along with the fuller production. It's all about context, how the sounds we hear play against each other and with each other.
Listening I'm also struck by the thought, 'this isn't the type of music you usually hear presented this way'. I'm not sure I'm right, but I do feel that while listening. These are gloriously widescreen pop songs done-up in a lo-fi way, but without really taking away any of their original qualities or adding in any of the "raw" qualities one might usually associate with this type of presentation. The songs are different, but exactly the same.
The solitary, lonely nature of the original songs becomes the topic. It becomes clear that the Hollywood dreams manifested in the original through the gorgeous, bright music were just that -- dreams. By the last song "Moon's Soft Glow" we're left thinking more about the light of the moon than the lights of Hollywood, while also feeling, perhaps even more acutely, On Sunset's lonesomeness.