If you read the PopMatters review of Josh Clayton-Felt's Spirit Touches Ground, then you know that Josh is no longer with us. His passing in January of 2000 after losing the battle with cancer was an abrupt and shocking loss, the random truncation of a life and a career filled with moments of brilliance.
Spirit Touches Ground was a posthumous release of the artist's final recordings, what might have been the last publicly available recordings of Clayton-Felt's material. The monumental struggle to even have the songs released, both before and after his untimely death, was such a triumphant story that it made the news on VH-1 and Good Morning America. However, it was enough of a challenge that further releases seemed improbable, especially considering the limited amount of source material available. And yet, a little more than a year later, we now have Center of Six.
The full story of Center of Six goes back to the days when Clayton-Felt was still contracted with A&M Records. The title of this current release was actually the working title of the planned follow-up to his solo debut, Inarticulate Nature Boy, and Center of Six would have been Josh' sophomore effort had he not wound up in label-buy-out limbo. Following his death, when Clayton-Felt's friends and family began lobbying to put together the not-so-lost recordings, the best and most completed tracks were assembled and, in keeping with a decision made by Josh just before he died, the album was retitled Spirit Touches Ground. Before he'd been diagnosed, "Center of Six", both the song and the title, had been set aside by Josh for a possible future, and now that future is here.
But Center of Six is more than just an album of unreleased material from Clayton-Felt; it's also a tribute album. While the disc contains six studio tracks that had been shelved since 1997, all written and performed by Josh, it also includes eight tribute songs by musicians who were either friends of Clayton-Felt or inspired by his life and music. Unlike the typical tribute album, these songs are originals, not covers of Clayton-Felt's material, and for the most part they are eulogies to the artist himself. This duality, six songs of Josh singing from beyond the grave followed by eight songs commemorating him after he's died, gives this album a wholly unique and singularly touching edge.
At the same time, while these tributes evoke wistfulness and tears, Clayton-Felt's own material offers the levity that makes what otherwise might be tragically depressing into something celebratory. In life, Josh Clayton-Felt was a very spiritual person, deeply influenced by Native American beliefs in nature and the soul. The album's title and title track, "Center of Six", refers to a Native American way of seeing the world as composed of six cardinal directions: North, South, East, West, Up (All Father/Heavens), and Down (Grandmother Earth). Therefore, being "at the center of six" refers to being in total balance with your relationship to existence, to being at peace, and when Josh sings in the track, "may we never be separated again", the bittersweet irony is that, in death, he believed in the unification of his spirit with all of nature.
This same spirituality, innocence and joy fills the Clayton-Felt tracks on this album. "Flute" is a further indication of his interest in Native American culture, a simple and short melody played on a traditional woodwind, while "Sacred Mountain" celebrates the same traditions in a modern context, using a guitar pop song to convey the message of people struggling to find their place in life. In many ways the song recalls one of Josh's earliest compositions, the School of Fish song "Speechless", and ties his general outlook in life together, from the beginning of his career to its sadly abbreviated end. As a person and a musician, Clayton-Felt wasn't afraid to approach the sadder, more complicated sides of life, but he always did so with a sense of hope.
Thematically, the remaining tracks are more of the same, balancing an unflagging optimism with the trials of everyday soul-searching. Musically, "Forever Self", "Two Sides", and the ever-so-appropriate "Intermission" head into the direction of Clayton-Felt's funk-pop interests, sounds that deeply infuse the songs on Spirit Touches Ground with such a rich sense of, well, soul. However, "Intermission" acts as exactly that, the last full Clayton-Felt song before the disc moves into the collected eulogies of the guest artists that flesh out the rest of the album. And the music thereafter is a range of diversity.
The guest tracks kick off with "You Have Been Freed" by Raina Lee Scott, who added her vocals to songs on Spirit Touches Ground. Her high, melodic voice beautifully drifts over a spare, piano-led track, slightly reminiscent of Beth Orton. The arrangement of the track listing also allows this song, which wistfully announces the release of the spirit into freedom, to be the introduction to the posthumous theme of the second half of the disc. Immediately, "You Have Been Freed" leads to an acoustic folksy ballad by Kevin Hunter, former singer for the band Wire Train. His gruff, nearly-Dylan voice turns "Taking You with Me" into a slow, sad, empty-bar-after-closing-time dirge of remembrance. Celebrating Josh's tenacity in life as a musician, Hunter sings, "We were watching you succeed / You were living out our dreams / And though I know that the show is over / I just can't seem to leave", to heartbreaking effect.
However, the most emotionally difficult tracks follow from there in quick succession. Indie anti-folk musician Andras Jones turns in a painfully mournful composition titled "Complicated O", where the "O" in question stands for "obituary". Jones plainly states what many of the musicians on this disc, as well as friends and family, must have faced when trying to encapsulate the life of their friend: it just doesn't fit into a poem or a tune. Jami Lula, however, manages to capture at least the split between mourning and celebrating. On "Waving", he notes the complexity of death through the eyes of a child. When the child's friend (Josh) is suddenly gone, the explanation given to her is that her friend is now "in everything you see", so now the child waves at everything because "his spirit's all around". Already a very emotional collision between the abstract and the tangible, Lula drives the nail in when he gets to bridge, singing "She's waving 'Hi, Josh' / 'Goodbye, Josh' / 'Hello, Josh' / 'Don't go' / 'I'm sad' / 'Feel bad' / 'Wanna feel you everywhere I go'" -- sentiment that in any other circumstance might seem cringe-worthy, but here is so direct that it cuts to the bone.
The collaboration between Renee Faia and Renee Stahl gratefully breaks up the heartbreak with a simple acoustic ballad in "Only Love". Faia, an actress by trade, wrote it as a poem, which Stahl set to music, and the two recorded the track together, finding a beautiful harmony between their two voices. More abstract than Jones or Lula's tracks, "Only Love" is wistful enough to stay in the mood, but alleviates the grief enough to make the journey through the disc bearable. However, the next two tracks are as personal as anything on the album, despite coming from different places. Los Angeles musician and close friend of Clayton-Felt, Sage, delivers a winding, guitar pop diary entry in "Monday Afternoon". In the song, he day-dreamily recounts all the thoughts he would have shared with Josh had he been alive to speak to him. It's a beautiful composition, full of soaring guitar work that is made even more touching in that it was actually recorded on Clayton-Felt's old Les Paul. Immediately following Sage's letter to a close friend is "Dear J", recorded by Colin Hay, former lead singer for Men at Work. Hay admits in the song to not having known Josh in life, but how much he feels the impact of his loss in death, stating, "It's a mighty world / But not so mighty without you".
The album closes on a moment of internal reflection and then a final comical note from Josh. Linda Buckley finishes off the guest spots with "Anam Cara", a delicate instrumental that is both stark and slightly empty, but also high, clear and wispily beautiful. And then, just before the disc stops spinning, in a final message that rivals in its brief jocularity the emotional power of Spirit Touches Ground's "Dragon Fly", Josh himself speaks up one more time with a quick and goofy a cappella outburst proclaiming, "Wherever you go and whatever you do / Yes, you should take your good sense of humor with you". As final words go, you could do a whole lot worse.
In many respects, Center of Six is what a true tribute album really should be all about: celebrating the life of the artist, not the ability to cover their songs. You get a small but tasty dose of Josh's own work here, including the excellent "Center of Six", and you also get some wonderfully touching, almost gut-wrenching, eulogies to the man himself. Moreover, in keeping with Josh's living spirit, all the proceeds from the disc will be donated to the Native American non-profit foundation, Descendants of the Earth. With both Spririt Touches Ground and Center of Six, the loss of Josh Clayton-Felt is mitigated somewhat by the surviving legacy of his music. But even more, and especially with Center of Six, it is his memory that is kept alive as well.