Who is Jason Anderson? I asked myself while listening to his latest album, New England. It wasn't until I took a closer listen that I realized who Mr. Anderson was -- rather where I heard of him before. Jason Anderson is the lead singer of the indie-pop band Wolf Colonel, a successful indie-pop outfit hailing from that lovely Northeast town of Portland, Oregon.
Portland has given us some enduring artists most notably the late Elliot Smith. But while Smith was creating acclaimed indie pop records in the mid-'90s, Wolf Colonel was staging dorm gigs at Louis & Clarke College. It wasn't long before Wolf Colonel churned out their guitar pop on 2000's Vikings of Mint and then on 2002's Something/Everything!, the band rocked out with an unconstrained mirthfulness. But behind that fuzzed out guitar pop, stood Anderson's penchant for stripped down piano-laden melancholia.
On New England, his first solo effort without Wolf Colonel, Anderson creates an album of songs that brims with a gorgeous aura of honesty, longing, and earnestness. It's an album he recorded during the summer of 2003 after completing Something, Everything!. On New England, Anderson enlists the help of his closest friends, mainly from the Microphones' Phil Elverum, Mirah, Calvin Johnson, and Yume Bitsu's Adam Yorkner. The result is an album that strays away from the carefree guitar pop and settles for a more intimate, live, acoustic -- ah, rather piano driven set.
New England relies heavily on Anderson's compositions. At first listen, it seems as if he strikes keys with a careless ease of an inebriated artist playing a piano, but what Anderson does is strike each chord with such emotion. And it's Anderson's delivery that makes the album come alive. His unstructured, stream of consciousness songwriting is simple, but his wordplay phrasing brilliantly forms remarkable collages of emotion and imagery.
I could quote his lyrics -- and I will -- but his words loose depth without really hearing the sincerity in his voice. On "For Kyle", he contemplates the "murder of a sunset" and describes it as "Bleeding and seeping / And mountains flattening into two dimensions / How trees are black now / Construction paper cut outs / Lavender to charcoal / And all stars / All stars."
In no way is this song mundane. Anderson's vocals give his imagery a merry pensiveness. It's that feeling of elation we experience after coming to the realization of how lucky we are to be alive. It's enough to make us "Hold our friends / And laugh so loud until I piss my pants / And stay up late / And sing so loud / And fall in love with everyone and everything / All at once."
"Pen Pals", a mellow song about disappointments by contingency, follows the same lyrical path through a strumming guitar and off key chord arrangement. The song flows so fluidly that it's easy to forget it runs over eight minutes long. On "You Fall", Anderson duets with the Microphone's Phil Elverum, taking turns singing lyrical phrasings until their voices intertwine onto an intense chorus. "A Book Laid on Its Binding" is a gorgeous duet with indie pop singer Mirah. She lends her soft lilting voice to one the album's highlights.
Another highlight is the emotionally wrought "I Swear I Am", where Anderson repeatedly confesses to the listener that he really is over it. Halfway through New England, an electric guitar appears on "Hold On", which becomes a sing-a-long pub anthem sung by Mirah, Khaela Maricich, Calvin Johnson, Phil Elverum, and Adam Yorkner. By then you forget that Jason Anderson was rocking out on his previous record a year before.
New England benefits from its various collaborations. Mirah, Elverum, and company adds such purity to each song, preventing Anderson from saturating it with too much melodrama (we can have too much of a good thing, right?). However, with the energy that unfolds from Anderson's album, one can tell that this is truly Anderson's project through and through. Anderson sings on "I Want My Summer Back" (originally found on Wolf Colonel's The Castle), "shame on me for opening to you." And it's as if he's apologizing to us, but Mr. Anderson, there's no need for apologies.