Music

Rusty Anderson: Undressing Underwater

Gary Glauber

Rusty Anderson

Undressing Underwater

Label: Oxide
US Release Date: 2003-12-17
UK Release Date: Available as import
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In a certain sense, Rusty Anderson is a throwback to the golden age of rock and roll. This talented musician is a whiz on guitar, bass, pedal steel, vibes, and more, often reproducing the kind of sounds that seemed lost decades ago. His abilities obviously aren't in question -- he's skilled enough to be selected by Paul McCartney for his album Driving Rain, the recent Back in the U.S. and subsequent world tours and ongoing projects (including a new CD in the works).

So with that Beatle connection, you find yourself rooting for this debut solo effort to be great. And as a do-it-yourselfer, Anderson proves more than adept as producer (along with musician friend and co-producer Parthenon Huxley), layering sounds and instruments in intricate ways that recall the best records of long ago.

Yet, while Undressing Underwater is very good and technically proficient, it falls short of greatness. Guitar aficionados will love the way Anderson serves up incredible guitar sounds, and some may buy the CD merely for the guest cameo performances. But while this is a good album, the material itself seems somewhat limited. I found myself wanting more of the kind of tunes that linger on in your head long after you've done listening. And while these songs are a nice collection of lush, richly layered efforts, most of them don't seem to reverberate very far above and beyond that.

The CD leads with its most commercial song, the delectable "Hurt Myself", featuring most of the touring McCartney band (Sir Paul on bass and backing vox, Abe Laboriel Jr. on drums, David Kahne on keyboards and production duties, Wix Wickens adding some additional keyboards). This track of a self-destructive someone who refuses to be anyone's victim other than himself, comes closest to meeting whatever Beatle-esque expectations you might bring to a listen, and features some fine Probyn Gregory flugelhorn.

"Coming Down to Earth" is a soft ballad (with a wonderful reverse guitar solo) about how desires for solid ground and safe assurances often get lost in the reality of unexpected change: "Looks like another change of things / Empty hole that once was certainty / Oh yeah, so it's time to believe me / 'Cause gravity has no feelings / I'm coming down to earth now, I'm coming back down / I'm coming down to earth now, I've had to let go".

The slow-building "Damaged Goods" was written with Paul Plagens, shortly before Anderson joined up with McCartney. It was at the tail end of a band they were in called "Peel", and this track features several of those band members (Jim Cushinery, Abe Baruck on drums). The pretty and intense song is about stumbling upon good things, dreams coming true, yet being unable to accept it mentally or emotionally: "Sometimes I feel like I'm living someone else's life / 'Cause this one ain't mine / I used to have one that I left behind".

One of my favorites here is "Electric Trains". Co-written and produced with Parthenon Huxley (and featuring Hux sideman Gordon Townsend on drums, John Krovoza on cello, and Ted Falcon on violin), this is an emotional remembrance of Rusty's older brother who died when he was very young. The smell conjures the fond memories, where he remains alive forever: "Everything that I've become is tied up in the sum of failed attempts and forgotten sweet successes / But I'd give it all away to have just one more day of thinking you would be around forever / I know what it's like for a world to end when I find myself going down that track again / I can always remember / always remember / I'll always remember the smell of electric trains".

The newest song here (another Huxley collaboration) is "Sentimental Chaos", about bravely facing one's demons head-on: "My life is a junkyard of emotions that I can't discard / When I feel empty the wind is a lonely sound blowing through the scraps scattered on the ground / Never rusted from the rain, they invincibly remain, in my soul and in my brain / You don't scare me anymore".

"Ol' Sparky" is another co-written, co-produced with Huxley (again, shades of great Beatle-esque production touches here). This rhythm-driven track is about Anderson's experiences touring with his old band Edna Swap (they released 4 major label CDs from 1995-1998). It's all about the friction that develops while touring and having to be your own cheerleader throughout the experience: "And you don't know how much longer chaos will be kind / You gotta keep the spark alive / Kiss your own ass if nobody else will".

Another layered and lush production awaits you on the track "Ishmael", inspired by Daniel Quinn's award-winning book of the same name. The novel is about a man searching for the truth, who finds as a teacher a full-grown gorilla who turns out to be wiser than ever imagined. This Ishmael tells a story that extends over the lifespan of the earth up to a point where the future still can be saved, should mankind learn to open its eyes to things.

Anderson's song asks for such an awakening to the realities present in Darwin's kingdom: "Goodbye window, hello wall / Show me the way out of the shopping mall / A panacea bliss, sweet as Satan's kiss, everybody knows the scene will not be this/ And you think you're flying but you're really falling".

"Devil's Spaceship" kicks things up a notch, rock-wise (Anderson's "Helter-Skelter," if you will). Anderson's guitar is on fire on this song about dating hell, feeling out of your element (chock full of extended metaphor). Scot Coogan does a nice turn on drums, Paul Bushnell guests on bass, and Anderson's cousin Karl Brown adds piano.

The instrumental "Catbox Beach" is a surf rock instrumental that shows Anderson's uncanny ability to transcend styles. The song grew from an experiment in trying to write a classical piece, until Anderson recognized it for what it had become. Stewart Copeland plays the drums here while Brian Ray handles the bass. Copeland's playing is subtle and masterful, and in deference to his musical past, Anderson includes a reggae middle bridge.

The closing track "Everybody Deserves an A in This Country" is a sort of grade-B glam-rock anthem (and developed from a jam during a mushroom tripping experience).

Undressing Underwater is an impressive debut from a startlingly talented musician who has taken a lot of time to get things right. From track to track, there are layers of intricate sounds, impressively arranged and executed. Repeated listening reveals more of that subtle intricacy, but again, I did feel some of the songs could be stronger.

Perhaps I judge far too harshly (and probably I do), expecting something memorably Beatles-like from Rusty Anderson. But given the strength of his guitar skills, and the way he can coax a world of tonal variety out of his efforts, I still look forward to whatever music he'll bring our way going forward.

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