If a tree falls in a forest and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? If the tremendously talented Wes Cunningham releases a second CD and no one really knows about it, is there any justice whatsoever? Somehow this soft-toned collection of a dozen new songs (yes, there's a hidden track) was released this past November and managed to evade my reviewing radar. That is, until now. While the whole CD clocks in at only a little over 38 minutes (slightly shorter than his first one), I'd have to say this is a matter of quality over quantity. This is music well worth your while.
Wes Cunningham is that oddity in the music business, a truly normal guy (or so he claims). In fact, he considers himself a boring person and goes out of his way to avoid the limelight. He's a private man, one who once taught high school and worked for a tree-trimming service and who knows what else. I'm going to assume that he's married to a woman named Emilie, who apparently inspired the songs here (and also is credited with the CD cover photography). My only true knowledge is that he remains blessed with a real ability to create sweetly endearing love songs.
Pollyanna is a muted affair in comparison to his previous outing, more introspective perhaps and less quirky in its offerings overall. There is a sense of maturity to the fun now. Still, there is a marvelous quality to all that Cunningham lets out the door. These are well-crafted songs that are assembled with love and skill, quiet delights that unravel and reward over time.
For those not in the know, Cunningham is a lanky, fun-loving singer/songwriter who was born in the Phillipines, raised in Dallas and now resides in Chicago. His 1997 debut CD, 12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking, on Warner Brothers, impressed quite a few folks with its wide range of styles and craftsmanship. He managed to work in bits of hip-hop and Latin flavors along with crunchy guitars and winning melodies.
On the first CD, Cunningham was enjoying himself -- that much was obvious. He was all over the place, yet always managed to show a fine ear for the kind of hook-laden pop that nestles inside your brain's music lobe and never leaves ("So It Goes" and "Say My Name" just to name two of several).
The new CD continues that tradition with "Only You Know", an anthem to fun itself. This track is the most obvious connection to the first release, sounding like it could be a distant cousin of "So It Goes". It features clever wordplay: "I'm a truckin' trucker's sweetheart, I'm as phat as I am / I believe in my dancing, got a badass tan / Want escape into freedom, wanna jump my rope, sweetheart." This is evidence that he can still do the fun ear-candy stuff when he wants, though much of this new CD is reflective and just a shade darker.
Since the new release is on the Nashville-based Pentavarit label, I assume the major label deal fell through; perhaps they didn't see the kind of numbers they wanted. Again, their loss is the smaller label's gain. Cunningham may now be focusing on different things with his music, but the talent hasn't faded any over time.
For example, the new song "Now or Never" is a complex musical concoction with shifting tempos, yet it provides a great showcase for Cunningham's agile, smooth voice, holding forth with a tale of the bad boy coming back to ask forgiveness in a time of need: "It was so easy to sell you out; you didn't even fight / I laughed at your bleeding heart and ran off into the night / And you should have seen me there, burning so bright and fast / And up until the bitter end, I tried to make it last / And so it's now or never (talk to me) / And so it's now or never (come to me) / And so it's now or never I need you." This aching plea is far from just another run-of-the-mill love song.
In "I Fall for Her (Over and Over)", we get Cunningham as crooner, and it works. This heartfelt reminiscence of a ballad, sung in little more than an emotive whisper, conveys thoughts about how proud he was to be her lover and her friend, yet nothing matters now since she went away. Cunningham manages to stretch the word "matters" into four beats and strings emphasize these lingering thoughts, yet it all comes together as a lovely tune of love gone awry.
While he has grown older, the evidence suggests he doesn't take himself any more seriously. His new website bio only offers this insight: "I sometimes wear boots, I like this and that, I love my friends. I like to create music because it's therapeutic, indulgent, and usually fun. I like creating other things, but music is the best medium because it has it all. You can tell a story, or get personal (or not), or get it off your chest, or send secret messages, or just rock. You can step outside of yourself -- there are no rules".
Past information told us that Wes Cunningham loves tacos, movies and basketball, hot sauce, a good haircut, road trips on no money, John Lennon, Texas and his old red Suburban, "Bud". His honesty and spontaneity were the keys to his good luck in having music be "a job". "Writing isn't a discipline for me", says the singer/songwriter who avoids theory like he avoids the snow and cold. "I just put down whatever amuses me at the moment . . . grabbing the music that best fits the current thought. I rarely re-write, and seldom spend more than an hour on a song."
I'm not sure that still holds true. It seems the new batch of songs are well crafted and the result of more careful deliberation. The keen sense of irony and metaphor remain, but the music seems to have slowed down, as if to better reflect the thought put into each song. The sense of humor turns up here and there, but this collection concentrates on a more personal mix of introspective ballads.
Perhaps the darkest example of that is on the hidden track "You Kill the Things You Love". This is stripped-down piano and vocals (with a violin solo), examining the futility of love: "Once your heart turns black, there ain't no going back / Once you shoot the gun, you're forever on the run / A darkness has no name, just gets into your veins / And the thrill that you despise puts fire in your eyes / In dreams I reach out for her, but she never turns around / You kill the things you love."
One thing remains constant for Cunningham: the importance of the song. "To create a thing is to want to see it flourish. Ask any parent, scientist, writer, whatever -- the act of 'making stuff up' is the most fulfilling thing to be sure. But what next? These beautiful (to you) creatures -- you want to see what they can do -- see them make friends -- see them loved and appreciated the way you love and appreciate them. The thing is, they probably won't ever be the most popular kids."
Again, I beg to differ. "I Love Eleanor" is one of the prettiest odes one is likely to hear. Soft guitar and harmonies abound as the singer professes his love: "And I write it everywhere, on the tables and on the chairs / Yeah, even as the cars go past, I write on the overpass / My love is so profound, I have to write it down / I love Eleanor, she's the girl I'm living for / I love Eleanor, and yeah nothing matters anymore but lovely Eleanor."
"Shoot Straight" also might find some popularity, as it vies for catchiest tune on Pollyanna. As handclaps punctuate an infectious chorus, we hear the confessions of someone trying to change himself (unsuccessfully) for a relationship: "Just so you know, I want it on the record, I'm not the right man for you / I'm as dirty as dirt, gonna write it on my shirt, and let my little secret out / 'Cause fires flare up all the time, in my mind, I know . . . lord, I know / I can't shoot straight, or fly right, and nothing good happens after midnight / I can't slow it down or straighten up and all indecent pictures, got to give 'em all up / I've tried so hard to give you something honest, to give you something good and true / But I can't clean up and the dirt under my fingernails messes everything up / So don't tell me that I'm okay, or that my heart is pure, 'cause I know better."
Those dirty fingernails and Cunningham's lack of pretension about his skills are refreshing. His critically praised 12 Ways to Win People to Your Way of Thinking drew comparisons to Elvis Costello, Neil Finn, Ron Sexsmith and even John Lennon. It hasn't gone to his head, and he remains committed to the music that invaded his life when a camp counselor first played him a Beach Boys album. He was six years old. By age ten he had worked his way through his parents' Beatles collection, in chronological order. He started writing music in his mother's piano classes where he turned struggles with reading music into praise at recitals for writing his own songs. When a friend introduced him to the electric guitar, the piano got put on hold. At Baylor University, Cunningham spent all his money and time recording. After graduation, he started making trips to Nashville, recording and shopping the material around until luck, talent and perseverance convened in the events that led to that first record deal.
At the time of his first CD, Cunningham wrote about his right to write pretty pop songs. "It's pop music -- you gotta take the sugar with the salt. Just because you cry at funerals doesn't mean that you don't laugh at farts", he noted. "It's all just expression -- some passes right through, some sits in your stomach for a while. Anyway, this rant is in response to nothing, if not my own self-criticism as to why I don't feel like writing songs to free Tibet. Maybe someday I will, but for now it's like -- 'Who wants to play basketball?'"
Four years can make a difference. In the song "No Justice", Cunningham shows his frustration at the ways of the world, how you can follow all the rules and still, the truth is never served: "Come down, breathe a little, you know you did all you could / Nothing works the way it should / A good man, good reputation always playing by the rules / But all your life kicked by fools / And they don't apologize, don't even look you in the eyes / And there's no justice in this world, no matter what you say / There's no justice in this world, so put your guns away / There's no justice in this world, we're all guilty as hell / There's no justice in this world, and god knows, it's just as well."
"Good Good Feeling" is a catchy tune, this one a lyrical reassurance to a friend, wife or daughter who has had nightmares. It's about the comfort and possibilities that come with a new day's sunshine. "Your Last Kiss" trades on the pentatonic scale, giving an Eastern flavor to this hauntingly romantic, slow-tempo number about finality, closeness and relationships. "Glory" is the shortest little gem here, a sweet, harmony-filled, philosophical plea for missing and much-needed glory in what seems "Just another ordinary everyday all in all replaceable for a price."
"Nevermind" is another simple song of reassurance to a friend (or child), using a spare guitar, glockenspiel and harmony arrangement: "If those assholes call you names, nevermind, nevermind / What do they know anyway, they were never friends of mine / And if they hurt you they hurt me / So what if they can't see what I see, baby / I'm with you now, I am you now." As the chorus and verses meld together at song's end, it shows how Cunningham has grown musically.
"Who Was I" is another short wistful gem that pulls on the heartstrings, as the singer's laments contrast the upbeat keyboard hook of the music. The qualities of the poignant lyrics truly capture that feeling of looking back on better times: "Who am I to say remember when / Who am I but some forgotten friend / Who am I to wonder where you are tonight / Who am I to want to rest my head on your lap as you breathe in bed / Who am I to even dream of you tonight / And we would laugh ourselves silly all night long / And then we'd climb up on the roof and wait till dawn / But alas I forget myself / Who am I but the last to know."
This is dynamic music from a gifted and thoughtful singer/songwriter, often beautiful and haunting, a natural progression from what came before, focused and personal. If you take the time to give these songs a thorough listen, you will be well rewarded. Seek out (www.cdbaby.com) these sweet examinations of love desired, love lost, comforting reassurances and realizations that things aren't just. Cunningham throws himself into his music on Pollyanna, and while he claims to be an ordinary guy, his talents let us know otherwise.